An Ugly Pursuit Well Worth Pursuing

Good Read

Last week, I received a review copy of Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America.  Thought it was worth taking a minute or two to say that I’m definitely a fan of the book.  I’m impressed with the way the author, Donna Foote, has captured the different teachers, students,  administrators, and classrooms and painted them as actual human beings dealing with complex issues and feelings as opposed to one-dimensional cogs in the educational machine.

While the book’s set in Los Angeles, I recognize many of the folks, or at least the types, she’s written about.  Kids who disappear.  Teachers who will do anything to see their kids do well.  Teachers who burnout.  Administrators who try too hard – and aren’t successful.  The folks who show up because they’re supposed to, but who’ve given up.  I appreciate the portrait.  It’s real and honest and captivating and certainly not pretty.  A fine example, one with which I’m more familiar than I’d like to be, is this paragraph, a stream of consciousness from one teacher struggling to figure out how to help a student he noticed was cutting herself:

Who am I kidding?  I don’t know what I’m doing.  The fact that it’s left to me to identify a girl who is on the verge of killing herself is ridiculous.  You can fake the teaching, but when it comes to this stuff, you can’t.  How can it be that I’m the one diagnosing or even realizing that this girl is in trouble?  I don’t even know who her guidance counselor is.  If something happens, I could be held liable.  I don’t know who to go to.  And if I don’t write it on my hand, I won’t remember to even report it.  It’s crazy.  Oh God, I hope she’s okay.

I’ve been there.  Ignore the TFA aspect of this book – it’s an eye-opening account of what it means to be a teacher in a dysfunctional school in the United States.  Or maybe in any school in the United States.

As for TFA – any alumni out there want to comment on the program?  While I dig their goals, it doesn’t seem to me like the program is necessarily going to result in systemic education reform.  Although, I might be getting cynical on the whole idea of education reform – small group of committed citizens, right?   And perhaps TFA, as only a 20-ish year old organization, isn’t mature enough yet.  Foote, in this interview with U.S. News & World Report, talks about the “two-pronged” approach of TFA as a reform group:

TFA has a two-pronged theory of change. In the short term, it will send smart, energetic, committed young people into these terrible schools. But the longer-term vision, and the one that is most likely to bear fruit, is the idea that, because TFA has culled so carefully for leaders and because these young teachers will be so informed by this unbelievable experience of teaching in underperforming schools, they will go out and make big changes.

Now that the early corps members are approaching their early 40s, we’re starting to see signs that these leaders that have been embedded in society are starting to rise up. If you troll the education reform movements, the big nonprofits, and philanthropies, you’ll see TFA alum[s] in their ranks. I think a real marker was laid down last spring when TFA alum Michelle Rhee was named chancellor of the D.C. schools.

I’d be curious to hear from anyone with TFA experience.  And I’m looking forward to the rest of the book.  Not because I suspect the ending’s a positive one – but because I so appreciate the humanity of the story.

9 thoughts on “An Ugly Pursuit Well Worth Pursuing

  1. Pingback: » An Ugly Pursuit
  2. I’m not TFA but I’ve worked with many who are. While many of them are raw, I’ll take ‘a-little-naive-but-willing-to-learn’ over ‘burnt-out and don’t care’ any day.
    That’s not to say that only TFA care, but most are certainly willing to try.
    Let’s face it – some people are sitting back hoping that TFA will fail. I am more than happy though, to have energy and iniative from any quarter.
    That said, I’d like to give a shout out to all of the teachers at IS 339 in the Bronx who are working very well to transform their school.

  3. Pat,

    Please don’t get me wrong – I’m all for any individual who wants to learn and improve and work hard for students. I just wonder about the organization and if their approach is long term helpful. Maybe it doesn’t need to be.

  4. Leaving aside the efficacy of the short term strategy, it is interesting to see how the long term strategy is starting to take hold. This year the Brown clinical professor for social studies education switched over from an old hand who started an alternative school in New Haven in the early 70’s (and everything else inbetween) to one of these TFA social entrepreneur types. I find this considerably less interesting. But maybe it will work. Who knows?

  5. I’m catching up with your blog, Bud. I’m noticing more of my education majors being recruited for Teach for America, which confuses me. I thought TFA was for non-Education majors. But one of my students is taking part in a five-week TFA internship this summer in Houston. The thing that I’ve always found to be kind of sad about it is that the TFA folks are thrust into the most challenging classrooms after only five weeks of training. It’s sad that no one would ever think of having a “Medicate for America” program, or a “Litigate for America” program, but most people think that anyone can teach in the most challenging situations after only five weeks of training. Let’s hope the long-term positive effect you speak of will be the ultimate gain of the program.

  6. Yeah – like I said, I have mixed feelings. I really enjoyed the book, though – you probably would, too. The teachers in the book struggle with some of the same questions.

    Maybe we should start a Litigate for America program. Might prove an interesting contrast.

    I hope that we see some positives out of the long term pieces – Rhee’s definitely doing some interesting work.

  7. Bud — From my perspective, I think that TFA serves a purpose, but I question how it contributes to keeping skilled and knowledgeable teachers in the profession. It seems that young people enter TFA to make a contribution before they go on to other careers. Is the profession doomed to be a revolving door of new teachers–TFA or not–who are under-prepared to help young people learn (or even understand what it means to learn themselves) and to do this in some of the most challenging educational environments we know? Can a case be made for an organization that ostensibly contributes to staffing high risk classrooms and that may also contribute to the achievement deficits in the schools they help staff? I guess someone has to do it, but why the pretense? Why pretend that these situations can be improved with TFA staff? Are these the only people who will do this work? If that is the case, what does that say about the work? What does it say about how we as a society think about urban education . . . if anyone is thinking about it at all? Why aren’t more teachers mad as hell and saying “I’m not going to take it anymore?”

    That said, I’m looking forward to reading the book. I doubt it will be uplifting, but I do think that it will shed more light on the plight of urban education and the needs we ignore right here in our country.

  8. I am veteran teacher from Houston seeking a dialogue with current and past Teach for America teachers regarding what appears to be a pattern of TFA leaders and alumni in school district leadership positions espousing conservative ideas and profiting from close relationships with reactionary corporations, while self-righteously proclaiming they are the new civil rights movement. I first became aware of this when a former local TFA Director, now a school board member, recently proposed to fire teachers based on test scores and opposed allowing us to vote to have a single union.

    The conservative-TFA nexus began at the beginning, when Union Carbide sponsored Wendy Kopp’s initial 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 taking responsibility for the event. Not only did Union Carbide provide financial support for Ms. Kopp, it provided her with other corporate contacts and office space for her and her staff.

    A few years later, when TFA faced severe financial difficulties, Ms. Kopp wrote in her book she nearly went to work for the Edison Project, and was all but saved by their managerial assistance. The Edison Project, founded by a Tennessee entrepreneur, was an effort to replace public schools run by elected school boards with for-profit, corporate-run schools.

    In 2000, two brilliant TFA alumni, the founders of KIPP Academy, then joined the Bush’s at the Republican National Convention in 2000. This was vital to Bush, since as Governor he did not really have any genuine education achievements, and he was trying to prove he was a different kind of Republican. And everyone knows about Michelle Rhee’s prescription for improving education, close schools rather than improving them, and fire teachers rather than inspiring them.

    Wendy Kopp’s idea for Teach for America was a good one. TFA teachers do great work. But its leaders often seem to blame teachers, public schools and teachers’ organizations for the achievement gap. By blaming teachers for some deep-seated social problems this nation has, they are not only providing an inaccurate critique, they feed conservatives more ammunition to use in their twenty-eight year war against using government as a problem solver.

    Our achievement gap mirrors our country’s level of economic inequality, the greatest among affluent nations. Better schools are only part of the solution. Stable families are more able to be ambitious for their children than insecure, overworked and struggling ones. Our society has failed our schools by permitting the middle class to shrink.(It’s not the other way around.) As more people are starting to recognize, we need national health care, a stronger union movement, long-term unemployment benefits, generous college funding, trade policy and reductions in military spending to bolster the middle class.

    Ms. Kopp claims to be in the tradition of the civil rights movement, but Martin Luther King would take principled positions—against the Vietnam War and for the Poor Peoples March—even when it pissed off powerful people. His final speech, the night of his assassination, was on behalf of striking Memphis sanitation workers. In his last book, he argued for modifying American capitalism to include some measure of wealth distribution. I would like a dialogue about what I have written here. My e-mail is JesseAlred@yahoo.com. You as an individual TFA teacher has a responsibility here because your work alone gives TFA leaders credibility (its not the other way around.)

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