26 February 2011

Choosing Not to Create Change

I was on a panel Thursday morning in Minneapolis. One of the panelists was the director of Teach for America in Minneapolis/St. Paul. And he and I, well, yes, we clashed. The clash did not dominate the event, but I think it was there for all to see.

The topic was technology, so I'm still struggling to figure out why Daniel Sellers was there, beyond talking about videotaping teachers so they could "become more proficient."

But something Mr. Sellers said at the end, struck me. He agreed with my assessment that "schools are designed to fail students," noting that just two weeks ago in Washington he had heard someone say that, "you could not design a worse system." But then he insisted that was not where our efforts should go. "The kids we work with can't wait," he said.

So, instead of fighting to redesign the system, Mr. Sellers offers, hmmm, untrained teachers?

TFA collected $149 million last year
. They expect to collect $189 million this year. They are an organization with constant access to the US Secretary of Education, the President of the United States, and powerful governors and mayors, and... they choose to do nothing.

Let's just point out that over the span 2007-2011 alone, the money spent on TFA - not on teacher salaries (which are paid by school districts) but on TFA operations alone, could have bought a million kids their choice of a laptop, an iPad, or a really smart phone.

But that's not the critical point, with all this access to power, Wendy Kopp, like Michelle Rhee, Sellers, et al, have deliberately chosen to not challenge the system at all.

Our schools are designed to filter students out and preserve the status quo wealth structure.
Millworkers, 1910, Knoxville, Tennessee
Though Wendy Kopp was 'well-enough endowed' as a 21-year-old at Princeton to be able to connect to Ross Perot and other billionaires, though Michelle Rhee had all the connections in the world, though the composite Teach for America corps of any year is born with more connections than Verizon makes each year, these people who are (the self-proclaimed) "so passionate about education" have chosen not to challenge anything about the educational system except the idea that teachers begin to do their best work after about three years in the classroom.

Why? Why, if they know that schools are a bad design, if they have all this collective power, have they chosen to take a billion and a half (or so) dollars over the past two decades and change nothing?

Because they cannot conceive of themselves being in the position of their students.

So I went back to this audio file, Michelle Rhee laughing about causing her 8-year-old students to bleed because she was so completely unready - as a first year TFA corpsmember - to be left alone with children.

Why was she laughing? Because, again, neither she nor Wendy Kopp, nor Daniel Sellers, nor anyone on the Teach for America board of directors, can imagine themselves, or their children or grandchildren, in that classroom with that TFA teacher.

Their children and grandchildren sit safely away, as they did as children, from these kinds of troubles. Which is why they choose missionary work rather than the political work of creating change.

That plus self-interest.

Because when the wealth elite of the US can convince the public that all our problems can be solved if only we stopped training teachers, and paid them less, and privatized schools, they have succeeded in preserving their position at the top of the steep American income-distribution pyramid for the rest of this century.

Wendy Kopp has done a great job for her 'home team" - those families who can afford to pay full tuition for their daughter at Princeton. She has diverted massive energy, and considerable money, away from things which might actually give a much higher proportion of students a chance at success. Wendy, Michelle, Daniel, they have all done their best to ensure that the status quo in American education - and thus wealth distribution - never changes.

Look carefully folks, this is the top-third of the pyramid
Unlike those of us who discuss abandoning age-based grades, or testing for compliance, or might use donor money to make schools available for parent-learning, or who might infuse schools with contemporary technologies which would allow for individualization and support for the widest range of learners, Teach for America speaks all day about high standards and classroom management and modeling a behavior system. They love tests (Mr. Sellers' profile is all about the test scores of his two-year teaching "career" where he claims to have, "essentially eliminat[ed] the achievement gap between his students and their peers in wealthier communities."). They prepare their teachers for traditional classrooms. They work every day to, essentially, keep the system the same because that is the system which has worked for themselves.

"Back then the prevailing notion—backed up by all of the research at the time—was that students' socioeconomic backgrounds determined their educational outcomes.," says Kopp in a depressingly unchallenging Mother Jones interview. And that is more true today then it was "back then" when Kopp began Teach for America. In fact, social mobility has slowed to a trickle, the funding gap between rich and poor classrooms has increased, and those Ivy League schools have become less and less economically diverse.

And through it all, Kopp and friends have offered us exactly what? By grabbing not just the media attention, but a huge amount of public cash as well, what they have offered us is protection for the status quo.

Some of us choose to try to create change. Some of us choose not to.

- Ira Socol


Pete Rodrigues said...


Thanks for this. I sent it to a former student of mine who has become interested in education, and thinks TFA is the way to go.

Chad@classroots.org said...

Great points, Ira. For all the innovation in teacher training TFA promises it's not really training teachers that different from traditional ed schools.

I was looking at this set of infographics on Mother Jones the other day.

Goodness forbid we even abandon textbooks and verbal abstractions for a day to talk about and create in response to something as starkly visible as inequality.

We have to put folks in schools who are interested in supporting kids' learning more than perpetuating a camouflage curriculum.


Carl Anderson said...


To shed some light for you and your readers as to why we asked Daniel Sellers to be on our panel for Equity Issues in Technology and Education:

1. TFA is an organization that explicitly states equity issues (specifically the achievement gap) as one of the reasons for their mission.
2. TFA has received a LOT of funding and support to carry out their mission for the stated purpose of closing the achievement gap.
3. Most new TFA teachers would be of the demographic group many like to label "digital native" and it is thought by many that that perspective brings something interesting to this discussion.
4. One of the themes I had hoped to draw out of the day (and I think we did a fairly good job of it throughout) was that the definition of technology expands beyond our personal devices and mechanical wizardry and includes our social institutions and the methods employed therein.
5. As Daniel pointed out in the panel, TFA uses technology to connect TFA teachers and alumni in ways many of us would like to see other teachers do.
6. One of TFA's missions is to get teachers who will later be able to shape and be involved with policy making. If this is truly their mission they needed someone there to hear what was discussed.

Dan McGuire said...

I had a conversation with Mr. Sellers, too. After the panel discussion concluded Mr. Sellers came over to my table to thank me for asking the question, “What does TFA bring to the table?” I had been hoping for an elaboration on the points Carl outlined above. We didn't really get much of that information during the panel discussion, but then the TFA mission is not really about using technology to decrease the achievement gap.

I challenged Mr. Seller's assertion that lack of access to the internet is justification for TFA to not even bother to attempt to use technology as a tool of instruction. I told him that I had observed that most Minneapolis Public School students have access to the internet, and those that don't have access in their homes know where to go to get easy access. He told me that my experience was not the same as what he had observed and that we should just agree to disagree. Well, the degree to which MPS students have access to the internet is not a matter of opinion. If we really want to know we can find out. If we want to believe that internet access is not adequate or even possible in the reasonable future for most MPS students, then we can comfortably continue providing learning experiences ala the19th Century.

Here's a fact: Any student in the city of Minneapolis has free access the MPS website and the all web based instructional tools that reside on the MPS sites. Access to the MPS Moodle sites is free from anywhere in the city. All it takes is a $150 iPod, or even a $75 used laptop. Most of the phones that already exist in the pockets of most of the MPS students above 5th grade are capable of accessing for free the powerful instructional tools that are available on the MPS Moodle site. MPS students can access for free learning environments created by their teachers from any of the computers in any of the public libraries or park buildings in the city; the MPS Classroom Moodle can also be accessed from any internet connection anywhere in the world. It's not about access to 21st Century learning tools. We've got access; it's just not being used.

If the TFA really wanted to create equity they would be using their considerable resources to help existing MPS teachers learn how to create these electronic learning environments that significantly enhance learning and provide equitable access to those who might not be comfortable with the status quo way of learning. Learning environments created electronically provide more equitable access to ELL students, to students who are dyslexic, to students who have trouble sitting in a traditional classroom setting for whatever reason. Electronic learning environments provide access for parents who also might have any of the above impediments to the learning environment.

If the communications network that TFA has set up for its teachers was really about improving instruction for the good of the whole, we would have heard more about it by now. The TFA uses technology to administer it's business functions, which as Ira correctly points out, is really about maintaining the status quo. If the TFA really wants to create equity and if the TFA has developed an innovative way to connect teachers, to reduce the tragic isolation in which too many teachers, new and even the very experienced work, then lets make it available equitably.

One small fact needs to be cleared up, Ira. The panel you were Skyped into Thursday morning was in St. Paul, not Minneapolis. You can be excused for not noticing that specific of location because the distinction between Minneapolis and St. Paul doesn't really matter to most of the planet; it's only important to us locals. It's too bad Delta couldn't get you out of the Great Northwest and here to the Twin Cities – I still owe you a dinner when you can manage to get here.

Janet Isserlis said...

thank you for this cogent and reasoned analysis of why TFA bothers so many of us.

To Dan McGuire's point - I agree in with much of what you say but challenge the fact that access through an iPod or smart phone is really useful for interacting well with online instruction - or do young people see and have far more agility than I do in using small handheld devises for reading and writing?
a relatively small quibble- the far more important points are those made in Ira's assertions. thank you for posting them, Ira, and Dan for following up as well at that moment.

DrRizzRazz said...

Having seen a few TFA teachers 1st hand through the first years of their teaching stints in Baltimore, I can say that they care and try. In the end, without 5 or even 10 years of commitment to training into a profession, they were, to my mind, like a few fingers in a dike with too many holes. Without them, there would be NO teachers in some classrooms. It says something that such a low quality, short-term-invested, teacher can actually put a drop in a leaking bucket. That's how much a travesty our educational system is. Given my own experience, I'd say the TFA is a poor answer to an impenetrable question. - @rizzrazz

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this lovely post. I myself am a public school teacher and my wife a professor at a "privileged" university. She is shocked at how many kids come to her asking for letters to TFA. She asks them why and they all say the same thing, the job market is dead and they might as well "do good for a while" and build their resume. Many of them get in to TFA. She now refuses to write those letters.

David Britten said...

Well-constructed analysis, Ira. Would love to hear TFA's response but I doubt they will.

Subir Shukla said...

I respond because this is an issue that affects education in India hugely. Over the last few thousand years, education has been a means of privileging a few at the cost of the many, whether in the ancient brahminical traditions or in later colonial education systems. This is so deeply embedded in its very design that many who work for the 'good' of the deprived aren't quite aware their 'inputs' are, at best, patchwork. Perhaps it's a little difficult to overcome the 20 years or so of one's own educational experience.

Any classroom that offers a little extra of the same-size-fits-all approach, only makes a superficial difference. Here in India too, many advantaged groups, such as those backed by corporate funding, are unable to go beyond existing practice - for much of the same reasons as mentioned by you.

In fact, even without access to technology, differential learning can easily be promoted in classrooms - if one stops using a textbook and works with a library and a clear curriculum document. Children can become the teacher's partners rather than 'recipients' in this process. The only thing required is to give up the notion that 'all children must learn the same thing in the same way with the same material and show the same results in a given time'!

Heather Beverly said...

I do not like the schools set the students to fail. I am glad that the schools I went to were not like that. Keeping the system the same, I do not think that we should if so then the schools would be in the stone age. Change is good because we can make the future better but also we can make worse by not changing.