Relentless Pursuit

Unlike the fall 2012 reading list, Perspectives from the Edge, my spring 2013 reading list concentrates on two groups I find generally positive: Teach For America and Knowledge is Power Program. I think they practice social justice. As those two words, “social justice”, mean very different things to different people, I should state my interpretation. I believe in the Roman Catholic definition, unsurprisingly, in the tradition of Rerum Novarum. I own a book of selections by Monsignor John Augustine Ryan, PhD, whose 1906 doctoral dissertation was published as A Living Wage. I don’t think my dissertation of teacher knowledge of conditional probability will have anywhere near that influence, by the way. It’s a different age. And I wonder what the Occupy movement would say if they knew the development of their term, which didn’t just burst forth from John Rawls’ head like Athena from Zeus.

The first book, Relentless Pursuit by Donna Foote, is about Teach For America, which burst forth from the head of Wendy Kopp, Princeton class of 1989. The book includes history, which can be found elsewhere. I want to focus on the original material of the text, the chronicle of Locke High School in Los Angeles. Originally built in 1967, by 2005 things had degenerated to the point where three employees had full time jobs painting over graffiti taggers (p. 92). About two-thirds of students were Black and one-third Hispanic, with major racial tension.
The main story focuses on four TFA teachers during the first year, Rachelle, Phillip, Hrag, and Taylor, plus their TFA supervisor Samir. Other people, including principal Dr. Frank Wells, also appear in the narrative. The TFA college graduates were part of the 12% accepted in 2005 from an applicant pool that included 8% or more of the students from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Amherst. Looking through my book notes, there are a lot of small records:

  • TFA has a belief-based structure like the army or missionary work. Teachers comprise the Corps, for example. There are lots of acronyms.
  • TFA engages in corporate style marketing. They advertised Millenial style like “An Army of One”, with lots of pictures of TFA Corps members in classrooms. Then they switched to look a little less corporate, because their surveys pointed to desires for positive impact and “giving back” along with challenge and personal growth. Potential corps members worried about their own ability, TFA’s organization, and individual issues of lack of money and sidetracking their own careers.
  • TFA members tended towards Battlefield relationships, including Ms. Kopp, who married a founding staff member at TFA. Rachelle begins to date another Locke teacher. Taylor and Hrag become at least BFFs, if not FWBs. (Internet slang counteracts my earlier reference to Rerum Novarum.)
  • Principal Wells thought that 35% of the teachers at Locke did not have the skills to be in a classroom, as cited on page 211. Even worse, better teachers tended to leave Locke for safer, better organized environments. The book describes one group’s departure for a Green Dot charter school. Students cried. Locke got worse. Green Dot charters took over the school three years later, in 2008. According to recent news, things have improved relative to other nearby poor schools, but overall achievement remains low.
  • Samir, as TFA supervisor, has a cold unsupportive demeanor with his charges. He definitely followed the word of Matt Kramer, former McKinsey consultant and eventual TFA President. On page 189, Kramer downplays being nice: “Civility and humility are there, but that’s not the same thing as nice. Nice is saying it matters more how people feel than how they perform, and whether they deliver results. … It’s not about you, it’s about delivering results. You don’t let your personal emotions get in the way of results.”
  • Sharita’s story on pages 159 and 160, well, is bleak. Cold cold bleakness. “The earth may just as well have opened up and swallowed her whole.” I’ve reached a point in life, through personal effort, that I don’t show outward effects from such tales. That doesn’t mean I ignore them.

After reading this book, I realized that the Teach for America organization and I do not share a vision of social justice. I detest the term “give something back” because it implies that TFA Corps members do not share community with those around Locke High. That’s not the preferential option for the poor; that’s not the righteous of Matthew 25.

I don’t oppose Teach for America, unlike much of the “Educational Community”. The book mentions Linda Darling-Hammond, now at Stanford. Reading her writing, it makes me happier that I didn’t apply to Stanford. In her 1994 argument against TFA, she claims “in 1990 graduates of teacher education programs had higher levels of academic achievement than the average college graduate.” (Phi Delta Kappan, September 1994, p. 24) Evaluating evidence becomes crucial. Looking at footnote 17 on page 34, support comes from one study, where “50% of newly qualified teachers earned a grade-point average of 3.25 or better, as compared to 40% of all graduates.” What’s insufficient about this claim?

I’ll go watch a Harlem Shake meme video to give you 30 seconds.

Grade-point averages are set by faculty. They’re not comparable across departments or schools. I have little idea how an education faculty member awards an A, though I suspect it’s at a much lower level than how Statistics, Mathematics, and other Science faculty do.

TFA was making the same error, as described on page 294. They defined mastery as 80% scores on teacher-developed and teacher-scored exams. I could make and score a test where almost everyone got 80%, or I could make and score a test where almost nobody got 80%. Neither shows much of anything. TFA eventually decided to determine performance against state tests, a metric outsiders could evaluate.
TFA administration showed other instances of improvement. For instance, this book shows how new teachers suffered from lack of support. They were not given lesson plans or much lesson guidance. After complaints, new teachers now receive toolkits and curriculum binders. As Ms. Foote writes on page 326, “New CMs were still being taught how to fish; the difference was, now they were being served some, too.” This helped address one of TFA’s problems, the lack of experience of its members. It wasn’t a permanent solution, though.

Perhaps the most important quote comes from TFA dropout Dave, on page 140. “The TFA lifestyle is not sustainable,” he said as he left Locke to return closer to his betrothed after several months with four class preps. It’s not. It’s a stopgap to address the severe lack of teachers in bad areas, particularly in math and science. Unsurprisingly, the book notes that TFA had no problem placing people in math and science positions, but much more resistance in the over-staffed and academically easier elementary ranks.
An ideal world doesn’t need Teach For America. Monsignor Ryan’s world doesn’t, given the Catholic church’s extensive education structure. Maybe even Linda Darling-Hammond’s world doesn’t. But that’s not the current world, and as long as persons capable of high school math want to sign up, even for a little while, I want groups like TFA to find places to use them. For a potential longer term solution, perhaps my next topic, KIPP, will yield an answer.

About Adam

My quest is a world where calling someone "virtuous like a fairy tale hero" is routine, not fantastic or ironic. My vocation is the teaching and learning of statistics. My dream is a long happy life with a wonderful wife and kids. Who knows if any will become true? More information is at my homepage on the twelvefruits network:
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