Monday, October 8, 2007

TFA Part II: Confessions of a Temporary Teacher

Last week, in response to the Times article on TFA, I wrote a post evaluating the costs and benefits of TFA. From what we read in the popular press, we would believe that TFA is closing the achievement gap and that the strongest determinant of student achievement is teacher effectiveness. The central ideas that I take issue with are 1) that schools and teachers can do it all and 2) that "smart people" can make it happen. Ironically, TFA's stated theory of change - which acknowledges that educational inequality is, in part, a function of social inequality - is much more thoughtful than this caricature (watch this slideshow), but it's been lost in translation. In what follows, the royal "you" is a presumptuous one - i.e. me - but nonetheless, these are the parts of the TFA narrative that I personally find problematic. My thoughts on what you know after teaching for two years:

You know that “being smart” purchases precious little in the classroom. You realize that being able to write an honors thesis gives you limited insight into teaching your kids to write a five-paragraph essay. You learn that those maligned education school courses on literacy might have come in handy. You learn this when you plant yourself in the back of your colleague’s classroom – who did go through one of those “pointless” ed school programs, as it is now trendy to say – to figure out how to teach what your overrated Ivy League brain does not know how to do.

You know that what happens outside of the school affects – and sometimes even determines – what happens inside. You learn this when homework is missing not because of Thursday night’s sitcom, but because Deneidra got evicted. You learn this when someone’s brother or father or cousin gets shot while running drugs. Or maybe you learn this when Kenneth doesn’t feel like doing his Do-Now because he spent Sunday talking to his dad through glass upstate.

You know that the “no excuses” mantra is more religion than reality. Of course, you do your best anyway – you drive to school on Saturdays to prepare your kids for the upcoming AP test, quiz Valeen on her vocabulary words over the phone, or have Millie, a dazzling high school junior, over to prepare for the SAT. But you also understand that no amount of SAT prep on your living room floor is going to prepare Millie for variations on gondola is to Italy as subway is to New York City. And maybe her score goes up 100, even 200 points if you’re lucky – but so does the score of the daughter of two lawyers who has been surrounded by books since birth and also has a private tutor three days a week - and her baseline score was 300 points higher to begin with.

So you learn that closing the achievement gap is not just a matter of sheer will, because no school serving disadvantaged kids – not even the beacons that pundits point to – has put their kids on par with the kids of the elite. It is then that you learn that education reform is, at best, a stopgap for a much larger problem – one that requires kids to have health care, preschool, and decent housing, and for their parents to have prenatal care and good jobs. So you learn that telling your kids that they can be whatever they want if they just try hard enough is a lie in which you are now complicit by virtue of saying it every day.

You know that people give you more credit than you deserve just because you have elite credentials, and this continues well after you've left the classroom. You learn this when you switch lesson plans with an older teacher the assistant principal is giving a hard time; while she said the same lesson plans were “exceptional” when they were yours, she tells your colleague that they are “under-developed and need more work.” You learn this when your colleague receives only an “acceptable” rating on her observations – though you’ve sat in her class and are certain her kids are learning more science than they ever have - but you receive an "excellent" rating though the assistant principal has never even stepped inside of your classroom.

So perhaps you also learn that your colleagues’ skepticism about your presence was not hostility to reform, but the outcome of thirty years of slights they’ve unfairly received. And when you do leave after stopping in for a couple years, perhaps you also learn that their chidings that you’d never stay were not personal insults, but accurate predictions – the wisdom earned through a career of watching bright-eyed upstarts like you come and go, and then go again.


Anonymous said...

How do you react to the idea that "closing the gap" is not about creating identical levels of achievement across socioeconomic and racial categories (which, you're right, will not happen until society provides equal resources to each child from birth, if ever), but about getting disadvanataged kids to a proficient level in numbers equal to more advantaged kids?

TMAO said...

Yeah, okay, maybe, but talk to the people who lead schools in high-need urban communities. Channeling that principal from L.A.: They don't need more money; they need human capital. Because the places we talk about when we talk urban ed reform are not structurally secure and proficient enough to do the job by virture of the structures in place, they are so dependent upon extraordinary folks doing extraordinary work to make up the difference. That's where the "being smart" part comes in: human capital drives the schools that work.