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Mind the Gap: An Insider's Critique of Teach for America


An inner-city schoolteacher offers a critique of Teach for America.

This is the second in a two-part series on the education reform organization, of which the author is a second-year corps member.

Among corps members, Teach for America is in the midst of promoting, with its characteristic zeal, a 20th-anniversary summit, to be held in eight months in Washington, D.C. For all of the reasons outlined in my previous post, mainly because I'm proud of the movement the organization has helped launch and endlessly intrigued by alums' current endeavors, I plan to attend.

That being said, I hope Teach for America isn't around when the time comes to hold another summit 20 years from now.

I express this wish half-heartedly, as I've developed sentimental ties to the organization that I was recruited into as a college student and have been a part of ever since. However, I believe the long-term health of public education would be best served if Teach for America acted like jumper cables, by giving the establishment a jolt, which it has largely already accomplished. But then, it would go away.

Teach for America agrees in theory, proclaiming on its website that “we know that enlisting additional high-quality teachers”—by which they mean corps members who mostly serve for two years—“is not the ultimate solution.” Teach for America is looking to replicate the success of Michelle Rhee, a 1992 corps member who was effective in the classroom—bringing her students from the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to the 90th percentile in two years. Rhee went on to implement systemic reform as an alumna, founding the New Teacher Project in 1997. She now oversees the D.C. Public Schools, which have made significant progress since she took over as chancellor in 2007.

The idea seems to be that Teach for America will cease to exist once it has accomplished its oft-stated goal that "all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education." With that goal still out of reach, the organization is expanding from its 35 current regions to a number of new sites next year —among them, Detroit, Alabama, and Rhode Island.

Is such expansion, or even existence, a plus for the American public education system? To help answer that question, I thought I’d address the four most common criticisms of Teach For America.

1. We’re inexperienced, ineffective educators.

Inexperienced? Yes. Ineffective? Too often. When I accepted the offer to join the corps, Teach for America inundated me with materials and videos that showed its teachers as miracle workers. I drank the Kool-Aid, honestly shocked during my summer institute training to see data that showed not all corps members were making significant gains with their students.

I wish I had links to studies that clearly showed corps members’ effectiveness. While a smattering of research does exist, corps members are not conclusively more effective than other teachers. Teach for America’s rigorous recruitment and training process is about as effective as it could possibly be—there is only so much progress that can be made in five weeks of preparation and the occasional follow-up visit.

2. We leave after two years.

This criticism is true for the majority of corps members. Even for those of us who do have a compelling impact on our students’ academic achievement and intellectual development, few of us stay at our schools long enough to make these changes systemic.

My predecessor was a fellow corps member, and his students had very high test scores. My students have done well, too, and they have also been able to partake in a myriad of opportunities outside of school. That said, if I follow his lead and also leave after my two-year commitment is up this June, neither of us will have significantly improved my school in any kind of enduring way.

3. We’re a stopgap solution.

My sister advocated against me joining Teach for America on the grounds that the organization provided a band-aid solution to the shortage of quality teachers nationwide. Around the country, she argued, school systems and graduate schools of education are not forced to reform themselves when there is a ready supply of eager college students willing to work hard for little money.

She has a point. If I was the superintendent of a struggling school system, I would be loathe to invite Teach for America in. While I know some teachers would make remarkable gains, those educators would likely leave after their two year commitment was up, leaving me in a situation similar to what I was in before they ever got there. While those effective teachers might go on to become school leaders, education reform-minded politicians or anything of the sort, I would be reluctant to let my students serve as their laboratory, their training ground.

4. We have a holier-than-thou attitude.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to quibble with the critics who lament the “strain of self-righteousness” that permeates some of the corps. Some of my peers are remarkably modest; many of us have been humbled by this most trying of experiences. Yet I do not take issue with the commentators, including some on my last post, who claim some corps members act like they know more than they do. You need a very healthy amount of self-confidence to think you can take on this role and be effective, and for some of us, the cup of confidence has surely runneth over.

Going forward, Teach for America would do well to push its alumni efforts as much as possible, thereby getting effective leaders into positions of power and creating the kind of profound changes that will, in time, eliminate the need for such an organization to exist in the first place.

Brendan Lowe is a Teach for America corps member who is in his second year of teaching high school in the South Bronx. His dispatch for GOOD appears on Fridays.

Articles
via Collection of the New-York Historical Society / Wikimedia Commons

Fredrick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818. At the age of 10 he was given to the Auld family.

As a child, he worked as a house slave and was able to learn to read and write, and he attempted to teach his fellow slaves the same skills.

At the age of 15, he was given to Thomas Auld, a cruel man who beat and starved his slaves and thwarted any opportunity for them to practice their faith or to learn to read or write.

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Culture
via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

On April 20, 1889 at the Braunau am Inn, in Upper Austria Salzburger located at Vorstadt 15, Alois and Klara Hitler brought a son into the world. They named him Adolph.

Little did they know he would grow up to be one of the greatest forces of evil the world has ever known.

The Hitlers moved out of the Braunau am Inn when Adolph was three, but the three-story butter-colored building still stands. It has been the subject of controversy for seven decades.

via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

The building was a meeting place for Nazi loyalists in the 1930s and '40s. After World War II, the building has become an informal pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis and veterans to glorify the murderous dictator.

The building was a thorn in the side to local government and residents to say the least.

RELATED: He photographed Nazi atrocities and buried the negatives. The unearthed images are unforgettable.

For years it was owned by Gerlinde Pommer, a descendant of the original owners. The Austrian government made numerous attempts to purchase it from her, but to no avail. The building has served many purposes, a school, a library, and a makeshift museum.

In 1989, a stone from the building was inscribed with:

"For Peace, Freedom

and Democracy.

Never Again Fascism.

Millions of Dead Remind [us]."

via Jo Oh / Wikimedia Commons

For three decades it was home to an organization that offered support and integration assistance for disabled people. But in 2011, the organization vacated the property because Pommer refused to bring it up to code.

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In 2017, the fight between the government and Pommer ended with it seizing the property. Authorities said it would get a "thorough architectural remodeling is necessary to permanently prevent the recognition and the symbolism of the building."

Now, the government intends to turn it into a police station which will surely deter any neo-Nazis from hanging around the building.

Austria has strict anti-Nazi laws that aim to prohibit any potential Nazi revival. The laws state that anyone who denies, belittles, condones or tries to justify the Nazi genocide or other Nazi crimes against humanity shall be punished with imprisonment for one year up to ten years.

In Austria the anti-Nazi laws are so strict one can go to prison for making the Nazi hand salute or saying "Heil Hitler."

"The future use of the house by the police should send an unmistakable signal that the role of this building as a memorial to the Nazis has been permanently revoked," Austria's IInterior Minister, Wolfgang Peschorn said in a statement.

The house is set to be redesigned following an international architectural competition.

Communities
via Chela Horsdal / Twitter

Amazon's "The Man in the High Castle" debuted the first episode of its final season last week.

The show is loosely based on an alternative history novel by Philip K. Dick that postulates what would happen if Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan controlled the United States after being victorious in World War II.

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via Mike Mozart / Flickr

Chick-fil-A is the third-largest fast food chain in America, behind McDonald's and Starbucks, raking in over $10 billion a year.

But for years, the company has faced boycotts for supporting anti-LGBT charities, including the Salvation Army, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Paul Anderson Youth Home.

The Salvation Army faced criticism after a leader in the organization implied that gay people "deserve to die" and the company also came under fire after refusing to offer same-sex couples health insurance. But the organization swears it's evolving on such issues.

via Thomas Hawk / Flickr

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes explicitly announced it was anti gay marriage in a recent "Statement of Faith."

God instituted marriage between one man and one woman as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

The Paul Anderson Youth Home teaches boys that homosexuality is wrong and that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values."

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In 2012, Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, made anti same-sex marriage comments on a radio broadcast:

I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, "We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage". I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

But the chicken giant has now decided to change it's says its charitable donation strategy because it's bad for business...Not because being homophobic is wrong.

The company recently lost several bids to provide concessions in U.S. airports. A pop-up shop in England was told it would not be renewed after eight days following LGBTQ protests.

Chick-fil-A also has plans to expand to Boston, Massachusetts where its mayor, Thomas Menino, pledged to ban the restaurant from the city.

via Wikimedia Commons

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

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Instead, the Chick-fil-A Foundation plans to give $9 million to organizations that support education and fight homelessness. Which is commendable regardless of the company's troubled past.

"If Chick-Fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families," Drew Anderson, GLAAD's director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A's decision to back down from contributing to anti-LGBT charities shows the power that people have to fight back against companies by hitting them where it really hurts — the pocket book.

The question remains: If you previously avoided Chick-fil-A because it supported anti-LGBT organizations, is it now OK to eat there? Especially when Popeye's chicken sandwich is so good people will kill for it?

Lifestyle

Oh, irony. You are having quite a day.

The Italian region of Veneto, which includes the city of Venice, is currently experiencing historic flooding. Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro has stated that the flooding is a direct result of climate change, with the tide measuring the highest level in 50 years. The city (which is actually a collection of 100 islands in a lagoon—hence its famous canal streets), is no stranger to regular flooding, but is currently on the brink of declaring a state of emergency as waters refuse to recede.

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