All We Have To Do…


We`re constantly told that to make up for any minor inconveniences caused by letting in millions of uneducated illegal aliens, “all we have to do is fix the public schools.” And this usually leads to some vague gesticulating in the direction of the Teach for America program.

Now, the Teach for America program is actually quite interesting, but not in an all we have to do sort of way. Here is its mission:

How are we helping to solve educational inequity?
Teach For America provides a critical source of well-trained teachers who are helping break the cycle of educational inequity. These teachers, called corps members, commit to teach for two years in one of 39 urban and rural regions across the country, going above and beyond traditional expectations to help their students to achieve at high levels.

Michael Winerip writes in the NYT:

HOUSTON — Alneada Biggers, Harvard class of 2010, was amazed this past year when she discovered that getting into the nation’s top law schools and grad programs could be easier than being accepted for a starting teaching job with Teach for America. Ms. Biggers says that of 15 to 20 Harvard friends who applied to Teach for America, only three or four got in. …

Evidently, all we have to do is to fire all the schoolteachers and replace them with the best Harvard graduates — but not the run-of-the-mill Harvard grads. Just the best Harvard graduates.

Will Cullen, Villanova ’10, had a friend who was rejected and instead will be a Fulbright scholar. Julianne Carlson, a new graduate of Yale — where a record 18 percent of seniors applied to Teach for America — says she knows a half dozen â€?amazingâ€? classmates who were rejected, although the number is probably higher. â€?People are reluctant to tell you because of the stigma of not getting in,â€? Ms. Carlson said. …

Mr. Goldberg, Mr. Rosen, Ms. Carlson, Mr. Cullen and Ms. Biggers count themselves lucky to be among the 4,500 selected by the nonprofit to work at high-poverty public schools from a record 46,359 applicants (up 32 percent over 2009). There’s little doubt the numbers are fueled by a bad economy, which has limited job options even for graduates from top campuses. In 2007, during the economic boom, 18,172 people applied.

This year, on its 20th anniversary, Teach for America hired more seniors than any other employer at numerous colleges, including Yale, Dartmouth, Duke, Georgetown and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At Harvard, 293 seniors, or 18 percent of the class, applied, compared with 100 seniors in 2007. â€?…

In interviews, two dozen soon-to-be-teachers here in Houston, one of eight national Teach for America centers that provide a five-week crash summer course in classroom practices, mentioned the chance to help poor children and close the achievement gap as major reasons for applying….

But there are other more material attractions. Teach for America has become an elite brand that will help build a r?©sum?©, whether or not the person stays in teaching. And in a bad economy, it’s a two-year job guarantee with a good paycheck; members earn a beginning teacher’s salary in the districts where they’re placed. For Mr. Cullen, who will teach at a Dallas middle school, that’s $45,000 — the same he’d make if he’d taken a job offer from a financial public relations firm. [And Dallas is a lot cheaper place to live than Wall Street.]

While Teach for America is highly regarded by undergrads — Mr. Goldberg said Duke recruiting sessions typically attracted 50 students — it gets mixed reviews from education experts.

Research indicates that generally, the more experienced teachers are, the better their students perform, and several studies have criticized Teach for America’s turnover rate.

�I’m always shocked by the hullaboo, given Teach for America’s size� — about 0.2 percent of all teachers — �and its mixed impact,� said Julian Vasquez Heilig, a University of Texas professor. Dr. Heilig and Su Jin Jez of California State University, Sacramento, recently published a critical assessment after reviewing two dozen studies. One study cited indicated that �by the fourth year, 85 percent of T.F.A. teachers had left� New York City schools.

�These people could be superstars, but most leave before they master the teaching craft,� Dr. Heilig said.

How can you expect them to stay? What`s the career path in teaching? There isn`t one. The only way to get a promotion is to stop teaching. You can get promoted to teaching teachers (“professional development”), which is a nice gig since you get to do it in child-free environments, but then you aren`t actually teaching anymore. I`m sure some of these hyper-ambitious Harvard grads intend to wind up as educational consultants who teach the ex-teachers who teach the teachers, but that`s awfully meta in its likely impact.

One thing that you might hope that Teach for America would have accomplished over its 20 years of existence is lead to a revolution in educational software and hardware. You can`t expect superstars to stick around teaching forever, but you could expect that they and their experience would go to Silicon Valley and invent great educational software. Instead, we seem to have gone backwards in the focus on education software.

Almost nobody remembers that three decades ago Apple, with its initial Apple II computer, was primarily in the education hardware / software business. In the early 1980s, the Apple II was the schoolroom computer. In contrast, Apple`s spectacular revival over the last decade has come about by abandoning education and focusing on already well-educated high income consumers. This is not a coincidence. (This is not to say that the Apple II`s vast array of educational software was any good, just to say that that`s what lots of smart people like Steve Jobs thought the market was for PCs: education.)

Similarly, what has Google done for mass education? You can see for yourself here.

And yet, educational software that`s peddled to schools these days, two decades after the founding of Teach for America, is still mostly crud. There is some stuff that`s half decent that tries to mimic a good tutor by giving more problems of the type the student got wrong, but mostly it`s a fad driven business marketing junk.

I blame the achievement gap. When the highest priority is closing the achievement gap, and that appears to be virtually impossible to do without inflicting brain trauma on whites and Asians, well, that tends to mean that most of the products created will be bogus.

… Several of the new Teach for America members say it’s too early to know whether they’ll stick with teaching. Ms. Biggers, who was admitted to Harvard and Vanderbilt Law Schools, has deferred attending to teach elementary school in Houston for two years. She then plans to go to law school and, after finishing, says she hopes to do something in education.

To be accepted by Teach for America, applicants survived a lengthy process, with thousands cut at each step. That included an online application; a phone interview; presentation of a lesson plan; a personal interview; a written test; and a monitored group discussion with several other applicants.

A $185 million operating budget, (two-thirds from private donations, the rest from governmental sources) helps finance recruiters at 350 campuses to enlarge the applicant pool.

The 774 new recruits who are training here are housed in Rice University dorms. Many are up past midnight doing lesson plans and by 6:30 a.m. are on a bus to teach summer school to students making up failed classes. It’s a tough lesson for those who’ve come to do battle with the achievement gap.

Lilianna Nguyen, a recent Stanford graduate, dressed formally in high heels, was trying to teach a sixth-grade math class about negative numbers. She’d prepared definitions to be copied down, but the projector was broken.

She’d also created a fun math game [fun according to Ms. Nguyen, recently of Stanford], giving every student an index card with a number. They were supposed to silently line themselves up from lowest negative to highest positive, but one boy kept disrupting the class, blurting out, twirling his pen, complaining he wanted to play a fun game, not a math game.

�Why is there talking?� Ms. Nguyen said. �There should be no talking.�
�Do I have to play?� asked the boy.
�Do you want to pass summer school?� Ms. Nguyen answered.
The boy asked if it was O.K. to push people to get them in the right order.
�This is your third warning,� Ms. Nguyen said. �Do not speak out in my class.�

Schools can`t get by just on Stanford grads. You need to hire a few retired master sergeants with necks wider than their heads who like putting punks in their places. Providing some professional disciplinarians for teachers to send jerks to will do a lot to make the Stanford whiz kids more effective.