UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

April 15, 2009

THE UNDERSIDE OF TEACH FOR AMERICA

Jesse Alred - I am a veteran teacher in Houston seeking a dialogue with Teach for America teachers nationally regarding policy positions taken by former Teach for America staffers who have become leaders in school district administrations and on school boards. I first became aware of a pattern when an ex-TFA staffer, now a school board member for Houston ISD, recommended improving student performance by firing teachers whose students did poorly on standardized tests. Then the same board member led opposition to allowing us to select, by majority vote, a single union to represent us.

Having won school board elections in several cities, and securing the Washington D.C Superintendent's job for Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp's friends are pursuing an approach to school reform based on a false premise: that teachers are the cause of sub-par academic performance in urban schools, They disregard major factors like the degree of parent commitment, students habits and economic inequality.

The corporate-TFA nexus began when Union Carbide initially sponsored Wendy Kopp's efforts to create Teach for America. A few years before, Union Carbide's negligence had caused the worst industrial accident in history, in Bhopal, India. The number of casualties was as large as 100,000, and Union Carbide did everything possible to minimize its responsibility at the time it embraced Ms. Kopp. TFA recently started Teach for India. Are Teach for India enrollees, who presumably love their country and its people, aware of the the Union Carbide/TFA relationship?

When TFA encountered a financial crisis, Ms. Kopp nearly went to work for the Edison Project, and was all but saved by their managerial assistance. The Edison Project sought to replace public schools with for-profit corporate schools funded by our tax money. Think Haliburton in your neighborhood. Ms. Kopp's husband, Richard Barth, was an Edison executive before taking over as CEO of KIPP's national foundation, where he has sought to decertify its New York City unions.

In 2000, two brilliant TFA alumni, the founders of KIPP Academy, joined the Bushes at the Republican National Convention in 2000. This gave pivotal cover for Bush, since as governor he had no genuine educational achievements, and he needed the education issue to campaign as a moderate and reach out to the female vote. KIPP charter schools provide a quality education, but they start with families committed to education. They claim to be improving public schools by offering competition in the education market-place, but they take the best and leave the rest.

D.C. Superintendent Michelle Rhee's school reform recipe includes three ingredients: close schools rather than improve them; fire teachers rather than inspire them; and sprinkle on a lot of media-thrilling hype. Appearing on the cover of Time, she stood sternly with a broom in hand, which she was using to sweep trash, the trash being a metaphor for my urban teacher colleagues. Ms Rhee, my colleagues who work in some of the toughest schools in the nation are not trash. They are American heroes

TFA teachers are highly effective educators. My mentor, when I started teaching, was a TFA teacher, ironically, Ms. Rhee's interim Director of Human Resources, and he saved me in that first, difficult year. But when TFA's leadership argue that schools, and not inequality and bad habits, are the cause of the achievement gap, they are not only intellectually dishonest, they feed the corporate influence which has blocked social changes we need to bolster our middle class, they aid the people who say the public sector can do nothing right, and thus should never regulate businesses or provide national health insurance or protect a workers right to organize.

Our society has failed schools by permitting the middle class to shrink. It's not the other way around. Economic inequality and insecurity produces ineffective public schools. It's not the other way around. Ms. Kopp claims TFA carries the civil rights torch for today, but Martin Luther King was the voice of unions on strike, not the other way around. His last book argued for some measure of wealth distribution, because opportunity would never be enough in a survival of the fittest society to allow most of the under-privileged to enter the middle class.

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