Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Baffling TFA Critique

N.B. I have no love for TFA. This article is not a defense of anything.

It's a pity how an article so far above Slate's pay grade with respect to style can be so wholly appropriate to it with respect to reasoning. In fact, its jaundiced look at education may exceed Slate's characteristic myopic take on matters loosely important when it comes to bulldozing the way to a foregone conclusion.

I would make two observations of this journalistic and intellectual sham. First, the author's purpose is not to vindicate any pedagogical philosophy, no such philosophy is so much as hinted at, rather this article is a squeaky broadside against Teach For America (TFA.)

Second, the author doesn't care about the academic implications of TFA on students, indeed this is not discussed, only its self-declared apolitical position, its alleged anti-union ideology, and its alleged negative effects on non TFA teachers. Take respectively:
TFA exists for nothing if not for adjusting poor children to the regime otherwise known as the American meritocracy.
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...
Rather, crushing teacher’s unions—the real meaning behind Kopp’s “flexibility” euphemism—has become the ultimate end of the education reform movement.
The more exclusive TFA becomes, the more ordinary regular teachers seem.
Nowhere are such bald assertions as the first two substantiated, and such claims are not minor: the author is alleging a first principle. Also, always beware someone who tells you the way things "really" are. Here we learn about what TFA is "really" doing and later we hear about "real" (read non-TFA teachers.) If Slate doesn't pick up Mr. Hartman for his writerly stylings then they should for his oracular clairvoyance.

The article is a skillful ploy, though.
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.
First, you have to adore the quotes around market forces. If Mr. Hartman "really" (really really) thinks merit pay and job insecurity, the politicized pejorative bromides slapped on to reality by defenders of the academic status quo, are endemic to free markets, then he doesn't need the air quotes. Market forces are either real or they're not. Choose, O Delphic one.

Second, since unions only "supposedly" protect bad teachers, is the author alleging they don't? You have either to allege unions don't protect bad teachers or not claim that they help all teachers, the implication of his critique of TFA's allegedly anti-union purpose.


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 world—such as Union Carbide and Mobil, two of TFA’s earliest contributors will help her solve some of the gravest injustices endemic to American society.
So because the money comes from certain sources who allegedly exploit people, that money can't be used to achieve certain ends?

Let's look now at some of the descriptions of TFA from the article.
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.
Rhee’s D.C. “miracle” has also been clouded by suspicion
has been called into question by investigative reports that suggest fraud.
A hotbed? Including TFA members? Clouded by suspicion? Called into question? Suggest fraud? These specious statements betoken a shysterish reporting I can't even draw an analogy to. It's shocking really.

Worse still:
Rhee is also disliked by a large percentage of black D.C. citizens, who voted out former Mayor Adrian Fenty in part because of his unqualified support for Rhee’s actions. This included firing four percent of district teachers, mostly black, and replacing them largely with TFA-style teachers, mostly white, whom one astute black Washingtonian labeled “cultural tourists.”
Lack of citations aside, what's being alleged here? Look at the facts described. DC citizens voted out Fenty, who supported Rhee because Rhee fired a quantity of teachers which was mostly black and replaced them with a body of teachers who were mostly white. So the author is implying that the people of D.C. might have ousted Fenty because Rhee might have. . . been racist? Where are we and can I get a taxi back to the education article?

Yet beyond the article's outrageous prejudices it is the lack of sound criticism which leaves it limp. There isn't a single attempt at arguing that TFA doesn't help children learn. That's the implication, but it's never said or argued. Clever, really. We hear about laws and society and testing and politics and elites and cheating and every topic imaginable ad nauseam except the most important. The closest we get is a vague criticism of the charter lotteries, which I guess is supposed to imply that TFA and charter schools are bad because they haven't yet educated the whole nation. Baffling.

The author concludes with this effusion of hyperbolic lachrymosity:
In working to perfect their approach to education, TFA insurgents miss the forest for the trees. They fail to ask big-picture questions. Will their pedagogy of surveillance make for a more humane society? Having spent their formative years in a classroom learning test-taking skills, will their students become good people? Will they know more history? Will they be more empathetic? Will they be better citizens? Will they be more inclined to challenge the meritocracy? Or, as its newest converts, will they be its most fervent disciples? What does it mean that for children born in the Bronx to go to college they must give up their childhoods, however bleak?
This is basically a string of accusations, although one line cuts to the quick.
Will they be more inclined to challenge the meritocracy? Or, as its newest converts, will they be its most fervent disciples?
This is an old school liberal who doesn't like the new liberal orthodoxy stealing his thunder and his following. He doesn't like the new elite of TFA and you can feel the envy when he reports how many Harvard and Yale graduates apply to TFA. The TFA teachers are "insurgents" from the old order. Old Marxists vs new Marxists. I tell you the old Leopard is long gone and now the jackals are turning on one another.

And here we thought this was about education.

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