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The Head of TFA Can’t Connect the Dots…….But I Can.

March 9, 2013

ed refo

Wendy Kopp gave a fascinating interview to Cornell West and Tavis Smiley on Pacifica Radio this morning.    She was shocked, shocked I say that “after 20 years, we have not been able to close the achievement gap!”  This may have been an older show as the interview was preceded by an interview with Diane Ravitch and Jonathon Kozol who has a new book out.   Kozol had strong condemnation for Teach For America, claiming that the organization sends “glamorous young people” with five weeks of training into the neediest schools. The kids naturally fall in love with these hip young Harvard grads but then the students are- as Kozol puts it – “abandoned” in two years when the TFA’ers have paid off their student loans.    It was the strongest anti-TFA language I have heard but also the most accurate.

Next up in the interview queue was Kopp, who copiously praised all the education “reformers” and her own Teach for America as doing important work.  She then lashed out in frustration at no one in particular that “after 20 years we haven’t closed the achievement gap at all.”   But instead of reflection or a reevaluation of privatizing education and demonizing veteran educators she confidently claimed she had the solution which she declared is working in a small number of “model, transformational schools.”    She claimed that high expectations with a high achieving school culture and extra  help for those students in “difficult circumstances” (did she mean poverty?) are working in these “transformational schools.”

I keep coming back to why it is that certain miracle reformers and teachers claim to have the answers but yet can’t seem to broaden their successes.   It is because the real evidence and real stats tell the tale.  As Diane Ravitch stated in her earlier interview students from “comfortable homes” who do not live in poverty always outperform those students living in crime-ravaged, poor areas.    When you dig into the “successes” you discover certain exceptions, such as in the case of  Geoffrey Canada and his supposed over the top  graduation rate,  who is able to send under- performing students from his school  to the local public schools he so despises which then are demonized as failing.  His school does however, have a medical clinic, preschool and 1:1 tutoring which are only dreams for most urban public schools, whose teachers often have to sweep and mop their own classrooms.  Then there is Jaime Escalante, whose students attended a math enrichment class at a local college before entering his Calculus class. He also had strong administrative support for his program.  And who could forget the”Freedom Writer” teacher my students so adore who left teaching after four years.

Yet when you look at who is doing the deepest work in the classroom, it is the veteran teachers who have stayed and who work with students in both high and low-income areas.  By deepest work, I mean after doing a ton of planning, honestly being able to say to oneself “this isn’t working “and planning again.  It’s taking risks and knowing that your students may tell you “this is boring” but when they make the connections it’s forever.

I do a little lesson on the Yalta Conference from the Center for Learning.  Some students get frustrated by it because it does require some heavy thinking.  (One of my brightest students  put her head down on the desk 3/4 of the way through the lesson saying she couldn’t take it anymore then lifted her head and screamed “Roosevelt was an idiot!”).  Of course it appears that Roosevelt gave Stalin the farm at Yalta until you remember that the Soviets lost 20 million people in World War II and Stalin was already occupying the nations between the Soviet Union and Germany.  Am I defending Stalin? Hardly.   By this time, I should have moved on to the Cold War because my pacing sucks, but I never spend less than 6 weeks on the Rise of Dictators, WW II and the Bomb, the Holocaust and Nuremberg Trials.    My next lesson is about the dropping of the atomic bomb by Truman and includes short quotes by those involved including Truman’s Chief of Staff who disagreed with his decision.   After that lesson students come to understand that the bomb may have been dropped for political reasons so that Truman would not have to negotiate over the Pacific region with the Soviets the way Roosevelt had to negotiate with them over Europe.   Students gain a much deeper understanding of these events just beyond simple pro and con about whether dropping the bomb was justified.  My point? I couldn’t have taught this deeply after just 2 years or even 4 years and especially not after just a 5 week training program.

My other point is that 1/2 of the class was absent that day which is typical. Why? Various reasons particular to areas of poverty.   Had to visit their probation officer, ditching,  babysitting, depression, pregnant. All of the above and more. So they never got the benefit of the lesson on the bomb or making the connection with Yalta.  One of my students in Career Development class wrote an essay telling me that teen pregnancy was a “gift from God.”  I made the mistake of trying to use logic in discussing the issue with her.  What about allowing yourself to grow up first I implored? What about the importance of two parents? What about being able to support yourself on a living wage first?  None of it was to any avail. She acknowledged all of my points but stood firm in hers.  I see potential that will go unfulfilled.

Wendy Kopp would say that this is my fault, or my union’s fault.   Our school which has  probably one of the hardest-working principals in the district would not be “transformational enough.”   Yet our principal last week visited one of our students who was shot twice in the chest and barely made it out alive.      Middle class and upper class communities don’t contend with this.

Thus I can’t in good conscience push test scores as a value on my students. The “reformers” send their kids to schools where testing is either not done, or not used to judge teachers.  Yet they demand the factory education for our students while their kids get the Cadillac treatment.    It makes no sense.    You want me to tell my students that their school sucks because they didn’t do well enough on tests they have no incentive to take after they sat in a claustrophobic classroom for four days straight determining the difference between two types of pine cones?  Enough.    I can’t take the charade any longer.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. CitizensArrest permalink
    March 9, 2013 11:16 pm

    “I keep hitting my car with this hammer and it still won’t start………..I don’t get it.” You can’t connect dots that you can’t or won’t see. It’s really that simple.

  2. Gary permalink
    March 10, 2013 3:00 am

    There is an ethnic, racist angle to this. TFA recruits are drawn mainly from the Ivy League and other prestigeous universities where Jews are represented by over 6 times their proprotion in the USA population while white gentiles are represented at 1/15 their
    proportion of the USA population. Thus disportionately Jews get their sky-high tution loans paid off by working for TFA for two years before they go on to professional or graduate school. They can use their participation as evidence of their community volunteerism to burnish their graduate/professional school applications.

  3. March 10, 2013 9:07 am

    I don’t want to use the discriminatory “Jewish angle” since Jews have been so persecuted throughout history from ancient times to being blamed for the Bubonic Plague to the Holocaust. What I do see however, is a racial angle- most of these Ivy League graduates are white or asian and displace Latino and African-American teachers and older white teachers,

    I don’t begrudge them their education or their spirit and in fact many later come to realize that they did need much more training to teach and that is a debate going on within the rank of TFA recruits to this day.

    Now these recruits cannot help what race they are born so it is not their fault that they are the ones in the schools, but the faux reformers who displace latino and black teachers as well as working class white teachers for hip, upper class young people with what can be considered virtually NO training. I took an Introduction to teaching class that was five months long- and that was before I ever made it into my credential program,

    This is not a racial or religious issue deep down. Deep down this is about money and who controls the content of what is taught- a veteran educator or a 23 year old much more willing to carry a propaganda message that your poverty doesnt’ matter- that you can be just like them someday even though you have none of the advangates they do. Some will succeed in spite of their circumstances but many will be overwhelmed by the uncertainty of living in poverty with few of the advantages afforded the rich. Maybe filling out your Cal State application for free. That’s not enough.

  4. March 15, 2013 7:23 am

    a couple of points – it is spelled Geoffrey Canada and his track record is mixed. Despite promise of supporting all kids into college, entire 1st cohort was dismissed because they were not considered strong enough group with which to start a high school. Despite his brand new building, extra resources (two adults for a classroom of 15 students) and enrichment paid for by additional funds beyond those used for instruction, the test scores – that magic standard of “reformers” – continue to lag behind the city as a whole.

    • permalink
      March 16, 2013 4:49 pm

      Thanks for letting me know I spelled his name wrong. I’ll make the change now.

    • March 16, 2013 5:31 pm

      Thanks Kenneth, One has to wonder what became of that first class. What is truly tragic is that the strengths of that first group were never tapped into. It is quite arrogant to decide that a certain group “can’t cut it.” I have seen tremendous growth in students over time.
      Another tragedgy is that instruction may be fantastic and the kids could be getting a great education there but all of that is ignored for “test scores.”

  5. March 15, 2013 7:26 am

    What a beautiful elegy. I hear you and Diane and other like-minded academics hear you. We, the teachers hear you, parents and students are now beginning to hear you, but Wendy, Arne, Barack, Joel, Michael, and others- well they’re just a tad slow. Hopefully and soon they will hear you.

  6. Dienne permalink
    March 15, 2013 7:27 am

    “The kids naturally fall in love with these hip young Harvard grads….”

    Really? That happens? From what I’ve seen, it’s more like the kids resent these fabulously wealthy white folks who think they can come in, take over, and boss everyone around like they’re God’s gift or something. Maybe it depends on the ages of the kids. I’ve seen some videos of TfAers, and I’ve never seen love radiating from the black and brown faces being taught by these glorious saints.

    • FremontWatch permalink
      March 16, 2013 5:01 pm

      When I was at Fremont before the reconstitution, we actually had some TFA teachers who stayed in the field and were quite good. We were lucky that way. But others came and went. From what I heard, the TFA’ers who came in after the reconstitution had a tougher time. I am now at a different South LA high school

  7. George Buzzetti permalink
    March 15, 2013 12:49 pm

    What I keep telling people to do is look at what Richard Arthur did in 1970 at Castlemont High School. At the time Castlemont was rated the most violent and criminal high school in the U.S. There were lots of gunfights and the principal was even shot in their office before Richard took over. His plan is simple, it works. Every principal I have talked with has done basically the same thing. Students, not adults are what is important. He had the first free breakfasts, first student parent center, every teacher had a button in their classroom. If they pushed that button 2-3 staff would be in that room in 2 minutes. If Richard pushed his button 3 police cars with 6 police would be at the school in 3-5 minutes. After 4 years of taking an over 50% dropout to almost zero and to college from 5-65% the SLA decided to assinate Marcus Foster, the superintendent, and Richard. It was the one night Richard parked in the back parking lot. They killed Marcus Foster with cyanide tipped bullets. Two weeks later they tried to kill Richard again. He then moved back to L.A. and is one of the founders of Whitney High School which for 25 years has been the top performing public high school in the U.S. Why doesn’t anyone want to talk to those with success instead of all this rubbish from Deasy, Bloomburg, Emmanuel, Vallas, Duncan, Obama and such?

  8. FremontWatch permalink
    March 16, 2013 5:00 pm

    Thanks for everyone who is adding their view to the conversation. I have not checked into my blog due to my schedule and am not as disciplined as Dr. Ravitch!!

    George, I do have one quibble with your idea that only students are important. Teachers must be supported in the classroom and at my school we have a ton of support for student discipline which is unusual in the LAUSD. This allows a much smoother running school. We are actually encouraged to send disruptive kids out with aides which other schools don’t have the personnel to handle. I am quite fortunate to be at my South LA school even though I don’t get to teach AP like I used to. I am over all of that and quite grateful to be such a structured environment. Our biggest issue is that the kids self -sabatoge.


  1. Teacher: Kopp Can’t Connect the Dots | Diane Ravitch's blog

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