Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Myopic Perspectives/Reforms Are No Match for Systemic Inequalities

Love it or hate it, Teach For America (TFA), continues to grow as an alternative route to teaching.  Marketed as an organization committed to closing the achievement gap, TFA recruits high performing college students (who often also hold campus leadership positions) to teach, often outside of a content area not supported by an undergraduate degree, in low-income urban and rural schools plagued by underperformance on standardized tests, graduation rates, and college acceptance (Urban Atlanta, New Orleans, and Chicago for example).  The idea is that if you take smart, more than often White, graduates from Harvard (and the likes), give them a crash course in teaching (which breaks down into 5 weeks of courses and 18 hours of student teaching in an unrealistic setting), get them excited about “other people’s kids” and the “civil rights movement of our time,” teach them to employ strict behaviorism and a “no excuses” attitude towards student outcomes…then poverty will be eradicated.   Nevertheless, a primal aspect of the reproduction of poverty via schools is not only overlooked; it is actively subverted as a paradigm.  How honest can an organization that markets “equity” actively ignore the root causes of economic and educational disparities.

TFA’s Academic Impact Model (at right) holds that teachers, and teachers alone, are the fundamental determinant of student outcomes (not parents, principals, the students themselves, access to healthcare, food, housing, parental jobs, cultural/social capital, parental educational attainment, safety, etc. – think Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, 1966 Coleman Report).  I've written about this topic previously; but, as studies continue to confirm decades old understandings of the realities of poverty, this framework must continue to be scrutinized.

The naivety about and complete disregard for individual student backgrounds, aspirations, volition, etc., is indicative of the neoliberal “no excuses” paradigm sweeping across education reform.  To be sure, if a teacher enters a classroom and fundamentally believes that students cannot learn the educational environment can be ruined.  But, what of the opposite mindset?  If teachers, TFA corps members or others who subscribe to the no excuses paradigm, are taught to believe that socioeconomic status, access to healthcare, student volition, parental educational attainment, for example, are a zero sum component of student outcomes then are those corps members operating under a paradigm that is destined for failure?  As an educator, I believe in having high expectations for students.  But, I also understand that there are limits to what I can accomplish.  Many education reformers call this an excuse.  However, studies and science continue to confirm that students living in poverty begin school with more disadvantages than their affluent peers, seen here, here, and here.  Should we then relegate poor students to a life without education?…of course not.  But, the naivety in believing that we can eradicate systemic inequality by “fixing teachers” (especially by putting inexperienced corps members with only 18 hours of training in the classroom) is not only ludicrous, it shows a willingness to ignore larger systemic issues – like poverty and racism. 

If schools mirror society, we cannot progress towards more equality by trying to fix the reflection we see in the mirror.  We must dramatically increase our investments in anti-poverty programs and continuing education for parents.  We must commit to ensuring that every adult has access to a job that pays a livable wage.  We must protect and further attempts to provide access to affordable healthcare.  And, we must eradicate racist and classist policies that subvert equality and only promulgate a stratified economy.  All of these efforts need to take place and there is little - dare I say no - room for inexperienced do-gooders who ignore student cultural backgrounds (namely because they typically do not share the same backgrounds – ethnically and economically) who believe that teaching students to do well on standardized tests will give them the chutzpah to overcome poverty.

By: T. Jameson Brewer
An article-length examination of TFA's Academic Impact Model is available here.

1 comment:

Martha Williams said...

Excellent article--
concise, to the point, and completely accurate.
This is a very talented and perceptive author.