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John Thompson: How Can Teach For America Stop Making Enemies?

Guest post by John Thompson.

Teach For America Co-CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard's address to alumni, "Fighting the Wrong Enemy," is correct on this point, "It's disheartening that people who should be our partners in a larger movement for social justice are fighting the wrong enemy." But, she has it backwards. It was the test-driven school "reform" movement that started this educational civil war by scapegoating teachers who have different beliefs regarding the best ways to improve schools.

Yes, teachers are "people who have put their heart and soul into the work of helping our nation's most disadvantaged kids fulfill their true potential." So, I would ask Ms. Beard to put herself in the shoes of veteran teachers. To borrow her words, when school reformers "make us the enemy--they're talking about people like you and me."

I hear good things from my former colleagues and Oklahoma City union leaders about our TFA teachers. The problem is the propaganda spread by too many former TFAers who quickly rose to political prominence. After spending a couple of years or so in the classroom, too many of them feel entitled to impose their cheap and easy silver bullets of "High Expectations!" and "No Excuses!" as if they could reverse the legacies of extreme poverty.

I also have big problems with TFA placing corps members in Chicago or other places where lay-offs are occurring. If we could work through issues like that, together we could say that TFA and career teachers "ARE part of the solution." That would be doubly true if TFA leaders become good listeners like Ms. Beard promises.

We could also agree with Ms. Beard that, "You don't build a social justice movement on data. You build a movement on heart and character. We need to build those kinds of relationships with each other, our students, communities, and colleagues in this work."

I certainly would welcome such a "deep partnership" with TFA.

Ms. Beard said:

The problem we have committed to address is one that can be easily ignored by people who have the luxury, the choice to avoid facing the truths of inequity. People who accept the status quo as normal, as okay. But we, all of us here in this room, we don't believe there is a choice. We can't accept the normality of the system serving our kids today.

Ms. Beard may not mean it this way, but the phrase "people who accept the status quo" has become a stock phrase to describe experienced teachers -- those of us who have spent our lives working in high poverty schools. TFA has made enemies indeed, as a result of its willingness to actively displace experienced teachers with corps members, in places where no teacher shortages exist. This enmity cannot be eliminated by declarations that "we are all on the same team."

But, what if TFA distanced itself from those who are destroying teacher unions, undermining due process, and redefining teacher quality as the ability to raise test scores?

To end the scorched earth politics that has made our schools worse, Ms. Beard should draw the distinction between an opponent and an enemy. The TFA leader could then proclaim:

If anyone is looking for an enemy, how about going back to what Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1967, "We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished."

We could then discuss the way that Teach For America, along with a host of other education reformers, from Bill Gates to the Walton family, have systematically denied the role of poverty, and insisted that its increase be studiously ignored in favor of an emphasis on high stakes tests. We could address the contemporary school reform movement which threatens to make career teachers an endangered species. This neither fights poverty, nor helps poor children -- in fact it does the opposite.

When Gates and the "Billionaires Boys Club" ignore education research and impose their opinions on schools throughout this diverse nation, that is a huge problem. The hubris (and, perhaps, profit motives) that prompts their dictates is an enemy. And, don't get me started on the anti-teacher public relations campaigns that the big boys fund.

It is a subject for another post, but I strongly believe that corporate powers sparked this generational conflict by driving down wages during the last generation or two, thus encouraging scorched earth politics. Would Baby Boomers, who love our students so much, be leery of twenty-somethings if the billionaires had not driven a wedge between the generations? And the same applies to TFAers who wouldn't be so suspicious of veteran teachers if they had not grown up at a time when the economic pie has shrunk.

The biggest single problem, today, is stakes attached to standardized tests. The stress that it dumps on students, while robbing them of engaging instruction, is an enemy that we should all come together to fight.

The "status quo" which NOBODY defends, is the name that has been given to the problem. The real problem is its "culture of compliance." It is a symptom of a real enemy of us all - cultures of powerlessness.

Ms. Beard, please take the first step towards trusting relationships that would allow all educators to fight the real enemies by explicitly breaking from the teacher-bashing of Michelle Rhee, Kevin Huffman, and the others who helped launch the ruthless assault on educators, our unions, and public schools. Then, we could all applaud your words that while "data and outcomes matter and the discipline of using it is critically important, we need to remind ourselves that education is about human interactions--built on the fabric and strength of interwoven trusting relationships."

What do you think? What would be the basis for considering Teach For America worthy of the support and trust of educators?

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