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Monday, September 2, 2013

On Teach For America, Anti-Unionization, and Corporatization of Education

A very happy Labor Day to all.

This day is about recognizing the daily, unglamorous hard work and sacrifice made by millions of ordinary Americans, on behalf of each other, and posterity. We tend to take an eight-hour workday and the weekend for granted, but people literally DIED fighting for a decent wage, and a better quality of life for everyone. If anyone has any doubts about the importance of the union movement, of workers having a say in the conditions and the wages that define their own livelihood, just take a quick look at this graph, and then read this article by the indispensable Laura Clawson.

Go here to learn more about the extremely interesting origins of Labor Day, and a strike that killed 30 and wounded 57.

This post isn't intended as any kind of attack or depreciation of the thousands of hard-working Teach For America participants, many of whom are well-meaning folks who understandably want a quicker way into the profession, and see TFA as a viable option for them to fast-track their journey towards teaching.

Yesterday, I was perusing the interwebs, and came across not one, but two separate articles that focused on Teach For America, the well-known 'alternative path to teaching,' whose stated mission is to: "eliminate educational inequity by enlisting high-achieving recent college graduates and professionals to teach" for at least two years in low-income communities throughout the United States. As opposed to the two years of classes in instruction, Literature and Reading Comprehension, Educational Psychology and pedagogical theory that I received while I was training to become a teacher (in addition to a fourteen-week stint as a student teacher), Teach For America tries to cut through all the supposed "extras" of a traditional teacher-education model in five weeks, without student teaching or standard certification and licensure, landing TFA corps participants in full-time teaching jobs at an accelerated pace.

Corps-members commit to two years of teaching.

While the goals of TFA certainly seem laudable, one immediately has to wonder about an organization whose own program requires participants to commit to two years in a profession which, according to MOST of the seasoned veterans already so-involved, takes at least three to five years to achieve basic competency. (For full disclosure, I'm a fifth-year veteran classroom teacher and proud union member, although I am not acting under and union-backed program in writing this; and I FULLY endorse the notion that it takes at least three-to-five years in the classroom to gain competency.) It's from this angle that Steve Singiser, a veteran teacher himself, launches his article on the front page of DailyKos.

The renewed war on the veteran teacher

. . . The "reform" crowd has long addressed the issue of veteran teachers as a battle between "youth and optimism" and "calcification and resentment." Not only is the argument offensive, it is also wrong. There have been multiple studies that confirm that teacher effectiveness is enhanced through experience. What's more, a 2012 study showed that teacher turnover (a built-in feature of charter schools, as we read earlier) does appear to have a negative impact on student performance.

But there are other, more obvious reasons for the "reform" crowd to diminish the value of experienced teachers. The most obvious one is money. Experienced teachers simply cost more than their less experienced colleagues. But of equal importance is that experienced teachers are often the most vocal and impassioned voices for the rights of professional teachers.

Do not underestimate how much the "reform" community loathes the role veteran teachers play in acting as the guardians of the professional rights of teachers. Much of the intellectual heft, and virtually all of the money, in the "reform" crowd comes from the financial and business elite. For example, when Wendy Kopp founded TFA, she did so by pitching her plan to Fortune 500 execs. That netted her the seed money needed ($2.5 million) to get her plan off the ground. So the "reform" movement (and the charter school movement) is fueled by corporate cash and wealthy donors. This is a shock to precisely no one. Now, ponder for a moment how that crowd typically conceives of its workforce, and then see the obvious translation to "education reform."

One undeniable component of that corporate mindset in education "reform" (and the charter school movement) is an ingrained hatred of workers' rights in the classroom. Even in their own propaganda, the charter school lobby admits that less than one-in-eight charter schools are unionized. There is no chance of that being an accident.

This article REALLY needs to be processed in full in order to get whole story, but I won't break copyright by posting it all. Go and read the whole thing. The basic jist is that corporate-backed educational quote "reform" unquote entities like Teach For America are hurting the quality of students' education by implicitly devaluing the importance of EXPERIENCE in the classroom. Furthermore, Teach for America is placing huge quantities of its participants in charter schools, which are unionized at much lower rates than other public schools. As Singiser tells us:

Charter schools need a weakened workforce, dependent upon the goodwill of the bosses, in order to insist on things like demanding that employees offer up to 30 additional hours a week of uncompensated labor. In short, they need a bunch of temp workers, who would never dare challenge the authority structure, because they are more interested in getting a decent recommendation letter to the MBA program in their future than they are to upholding some minimal rights for the profession, since it is a profession that is viewed merely as an attractive line on their bio for whatever is next in their future.

In contrast, veteran teachers are confident enough in their convictions, and have a broad enough depth of experiences, to question the inherent value of "reforms," especially when said reforms are coming from people with scant, if any, classroom experience. What's more, they are fiercely protective of the profession, because they know that they are in it for the long haul. The part-timers will not fight, because either (a) they don't care because they're looking at the next rung of the ladder or (b) they're afraid. Neither of those things apply to veteran teachers, which is why they will fight.

Thus are Teach For America participants the advance guard for a de-professionalized, short-timers' teaching field, where experience isn't needed, and may in fact be an impediment to the agenda of corporate-backed educators.

But that was just the start of my education about Teach for America, as I stumbled across this important article from Max Blumenthal at Alternet.org, just an hour or so later.

Wealthy Widow Is Pouring Millions into Teach for America, Promoting a Pro-Israel Agenda to Needy and Impressionable Children

Lynn Schusterman, the wealthy widow of the oil and gas tycoon and major Israel booster, has begun injecting millions into TFA, the advance guard of the education privatization movement.

. . . Since TFA requires only a two-year commitment from its teachers, more than half of TFA members leave their positions after a brief stint in the classroom. Some take advantage of a TFA partnership with Goldman Sachs to seek jobs at the investment firm, which recently paid much of a $247 million settlement with homeowners victimized by foreclosure abuse.

As a revolving cast of inexperienced, culturally uninitiated teachers drift in and out of inner city classrooms, many schools have been thrown into chaos. Dissent is building within the ranks of TFA, with some veterans openly conceding that they were used as foot soldiers in a concerted assault on unions and public schooling.

But the organization’s recruitment efforts remain strong; over 10,000 members hold TFA jobs across the country, taking advantage of opportunities for personal advancement not available to their certified colleagues. Among the most coveted perks available to TFA members is Reality Israel, an all-expenses-paid, ten-day tour of the Holy Land. Unfortunately, not every teacher has what it takes to qualify. Though a few gentiles have been accepted to Reality Israel, its application process clearly offers preferential consideration to Jews. According to Reality Israel’s website, participants are required to “have affiliations with or interests in Jewish life.” Such language is likely to deter non-Jews, especially Muslim and Arab TFA members.

This is another must-read article, that shows us how, in times of tough budget crunches, school districts can cuts costs and eliminate those troublesome, empowered, experienced, and more-likely unionized teachers, and replace them with cheaper, less empowered, less experienced teachers from programs like Teach For America; which, in a back-door way, encourage idealistic young people to "get in and get out" of the teaching profession before they become the type of veteran teachers that do a better job for our students, and stand up for our profession.

Further on, this article gives important details as to how this whole thing works . . .

the destructive impact of Hurricane Katrina prompted the firing of 7,500 education workers in New Orleans, the conversion of most of the city’s schools to charters, and a nearly 20 percent decline in the share of black teachers working in the district. Meanwhile, TFA expanded its operations in the city, moving about 300 new members into teaching positions.

“I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina,” US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan remarked.

In Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel has shuttered nearly fifty public schools, mostly in predominately African-American neighborhoods, approximately 850 teachers and staffers have lost their jobs. The man-made disaster has been a boon to TFA, which is pouring into Chicago with hundreds of non-union replacement teachers. “The added influx of TFA corps in the city means they now compete head-to-head for jobs with traditional teachers,” noted journalist Emily Brosious.

This style of de-professionalization is troubling even BEFORE you get the major thrust of Blumenthal's article, concerning the Pro-Israel ideology promoted by one of TFA's largest individual donors, Lynn Shusterman; whose right-leaning "Pro-Israel-can-do-no-wrong-and-all-who-question-this-are-to-be-smeared-as-anti-Semitic" agenda is problematic to itself.

Again, this is not to say that many TFA folks aren't sincere people, who want to become excellent life-long teachers . . . but the pro-corporate, anti-professional agenda of TFA's philosophical background is enough to give any educator pause.

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