Sunday, June 9, 2013

When Real Educators Honor the Fake Ones... and I don't mean actors

Haven’t written here in forever… where to begin…

How about this: today was the commencement ceremony for my undergrad alma mater, Dartmouth College. The commencement speaker for the second year in a row was a faux educator who has done far more harm than good to the American educational system while simultaneously playing to the adoring squeals of media whores, corporate busybodies (hey, Bill Gates: I admit I know nothing about software… why don’t you do the same with respect to education?), and—alas!—people who should know better.

Anyway, last year’s speaker was Wendy Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach for America, one of those good ideas in theory which, looked at objectively, has been a colossal failure. The idea is to recruit the best and brightest from the nation’s top universities, then to turn them loose on troubled school districts to bring about REFORM. No one is willing to define exactly what that means, but it sure does sound promising, dunnit?

For another viewpoint, one that closely resembles mine, here’s Salon’s Andrew Hartman a few months ago:
From its inception, the media anointed TFA the savior of American education. 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. 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.
The original idea was to replace weak and often part-time or substitute teachers with bright and energetic—but, frankly, dilettante—recent college alums with good academic pedigrees but only five weeks of preparation. These alleged teachers would commit to two years in the classroom before moving on to “real” careers on Wall Street or wherever… you know, careers worthy of their skills. Veteran Fordham professor Mark Naison describes one promotional poster as urging college students to:
“Learn how joining TFA can help you gain admission to Stanford Business School.” The message of that flyer was: “use teaching in high-poverty areas as a stepping stone to a career in business.” It was not only disrespectful to every person who chooses to commit their life to the teaching profession, it effectively advocated using students in high-poverty areas as guinea pigs for an experiment in “resume-padding” for ambitious young people.
Supposedly, at least according to early recruitment strategies, TFA-ers would enhance the reputation of public school teachers, because, you see, with so many of the nation’s academic elite working for them, all those career educator boats would rise in the new high tide of excellence. It really takes someone from the media/education/corporate elite to miss the condescension dripping from the rhetoric. I am frankly mortified but hardly surprised that my alma mater bought into this tripe.

Gentle Reader, Curmie is aware of the irony that he graduated with honors from an Ivy League school and never took an education course in his life (the perfect TFA-er!) and yet took up a career as a teacher, albeit at the university rather than primary or secondary level. It must surely seem strange for one such as I to be so adamantly opposed to TFA’s operation. The answer is simple, though no less ironic. There is no question that my undergraduate experience was extremely beneficial to developing my critical thinking skills—the very skills my alma mater seems to have abandoned in its fawning over the smug and elitist TFA agenda.

But the fact is that anyone with a functioning bullshitometer will be immediately skeptical of TFA’s grandiose claims. The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss, who actually covers education issues instead of merely opining about them, points out a host of problems with TFA’s hype: that the studies cited are unlikely to be peer-reviewed, that standardized testing just might not be the panacea that TFA and others claim it to be, that the single best predictor of a teacher’s effectiveness is experience (and, by definition, the TFA folks will have only one or two years on the job)… you get the idea.

Indeed, TFA has allowed school administrators and politicians more interested in slashing budgets than in educating students—and that’s a good many of the former and the vast majority of the latter—to save money at the expense of quality by laying off good and experienced teachers in favor of TFA drive-bys.

There are lots of other reasons to distrust TFA: the fact that few of the university students accepted into the program come from anything like the communities in which they will serve, for example. Obviously, people from higher socio-economic classes ought not to be precluded from participating in TFA or similar programs, but there does seem to be a systematic attempt to prioritize prestige over product in the selection of TFA “associates”: an apt metaphor, I fear, for the entire operation.

As Naison writes:
…the most objectionable aspect of Teach For America — other than its contempt for lifetime educators — is its willingness to create another pathway to wealth and power for those already privileged in the rapidly expanding educational-industrial complex, which already offers numerous careers for the ambitious and well-connected. An organization which began by promoting idealism and educational equity has become, to all too many of its recruits, a vehicle for profiting from the misery of America’s poor.
Still, if Kopp represents much of what we ought not to be celebrating in the American educational system, she’s not even in the same league of charlatanism as this year’s Dartmouth honoree, Geoffrey Canada, hero of “Waiting for Superman” and the executive poobah of the Harlem Children’s Zone, another ostensibly high-minded program designed to exploit public school teachers and students for the benefit of… well, Mr. Canada.

Whereas Kopp’s operation is at least forthright in its elitism and demonization of teachers’ unions (and teachers), for example, Canada is a full-out fraud. He’s the guy who insists that class size doesn’t matter, while keeping his classes to 15 (he sucks up gazillions of dollars in corporate largesse to be able to afford that). He’s the guy who claims that a good education doesn’t necessarily cost a lot of money while spending $16K a year per student. By the way, that’s just the in-class costs, not counting “the costs of a 4 p.m.-to-6 p.m. after-school program, rewards for student performance, a chef who prepares healthy meals, central administration and most building costs, and the students’ free health and dental care, which comes out of the zone’s overall budget.” So tack on another few thousand per student. The national average per student in 2011: $10,694.

Canada also bellows full-throatedly about his successes at raising test scores. Let’s leave aside the obvious points that test scores are not the sole determinant of educational value, or that non-school factors (family life, economic class, etc.) are generally conceded to play a greater role in predicting educational success than any changes in personnel or curriculum. For the sake of argument, let’s treat test scores as worth the paper they’re printed on, and we’ll even ignore Canada’s significantly better facilities and pretend that the playing field is even.

Let’s just look at the numbers. Canada crows that 100% of his students graduate. Well, yeah… if you add enough qualifiers. Of course, if you add enough qualifiers, you can make anything “true.” George W. Bush was, in fact, the greatest (Republican) President in (21st century) American history. What goes unspoken in Canada’s self-aggrandizing is the fact that his statistics are based on students who make it to senior year. He casually neglects to mention that he dismissed an entire class… twice! Even if we ignore those purges, Canada’s claims of 100% completion rate are at best misleading and more accurately described as utterly fabricated. There were 97 6th graders in HCZ in 2005-06; 62 graduated in 2012. That’s a little short of 100%: about 36% less, to be precise. The others? Some may have moved, although one suspects that this was relatively infrequent. The rest either dropped out or were removed.

I am not suggesting here that such figures are problematic in and of themselves. A school in a high-poverty area that graduates close to 2/3 of its students and places all or nearly all of those graduates in colleges and universities is doing something right. Indeed, I am always skeptical of extremely high retention rates. As a university professor, I am always interested in keeping our attrition rates low, but not necessarily “as low as possible.” We wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we gave passing grades for work that doesn’t meet reasonable standards, and—for as many different reasons as there are students who fail—some of our charges just don’t make it. That’s not the problem with Canada. It’s the misrepresentation that is so egregious that nothing he says should ever again be taken at face value. If he’s willing to lie about something that can be readily checked, what’s he going to say if he suspects there’s no way for the rest of us to find out the truth?

Moreover, even as the “Waiting for Superman” director David Guggenheim orgasms over the wonderfulness of Canada’s “reforms,” actual achievement is somewhat more down-to-earth. Diane Ravitch points out that “even Geoffrey Canada’s schools have many students who are not proficient. On the 2010 state tests, 60 percent of the fourth-grade students in one of his charter schools were not proficient in reading, nor were 50 percent in the other.”

In other words, by spending more money in better facilities, Canada was able to achieve some positive but hardly amazing results. Somehow I suspect that traditional schools could have achieved similar results without the hype and without paying $400K to the administrator in charge.

Which brings us back to Dartmouth. Two years in a row they’ve not only given an honorary degree to an educationist hack, but have chosen said anti-teacher, anti-student self-promoter as the commencement speaker. There were certainly other options—one of my personal heroes, Johnny Clegg, received an honorary degree last year, for example. What’s to be done? Well, I could cut my Alumni Fund contribution in half… that would send shock waves through the budgetary process, amounting to about .0000005% of the annual operating expenses. Or I could squawk ineffectually in a blog post. Yeah, I think I’ll do that.