A Summer 2013 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, (“Saying No to Teach for America”) provides yet another indication of why our children are becoming ever-less educated despite the billions we put into their education. The story tells of Teach for America’s travails in the People’s Republic of Minnesota. Teach for America is a program that brings recent graduates from a wide variety of institutions and educational backgrounds to low-income schools, where they spend two years teaching. The goal is simple: to see that children growing up in poverty receive an excellent education. Participants receive special training for their assignments, and it is common for them to go on to enter the field of primary and secondary education as a career.
But, for those who participate in Teach for America, teaching is not a “career” in the sense preferred by many in our nation’s education departments. To begin with, they do not have degrees in education, instead earning their undergraduate degrees in substantive areas like math, history and the liberal arts. In addition, unlike too many “professional” educators, they are committed to the idea that, as their mission statement puts it, “We can provide an excellent education for kids in low-income communities. Although 16 million American children face the extra challenges of poverty, an increasing body of evidence shows they can achieve at the highest levels.” Moreover, Teach for America believes that an excellent education, and achievement at the highest levels, can make it possible for young people to raise themselves out of poverty, embarking on successful careers and lives filled with greater opportunity than that currently provided in our low-income communities.
And that is enough to make Teach for America a problem for some educators and would-be educators. As the Chronicle put it, with an unsurprising liberal twist, “If a university enrolls and charges students to study in degree programs to become teachers or learn about education, is it odd for the same institution to partner with an organization that helps people avoid just that kind of education?” The called-for response clearly is a resounding “yes.” The question itself is being put by a group of graduate students from the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development. The seeming contradiction—of a University that runs an education school helping non-education-school graduates earn teaching certificates—is one these students found sufficiently troublesome to launch a petition drive to prevent the University from partnering with Teach for America.
And, if one takes seriously the idea that one can only be a good teacher if one’s education has focused on professional training in pedagogical methodologies and the “roots” of learning, then one might find such a program troubling. Of course, the practical evidence is overwhelming that this is precisely the wrong way to train good teachers. The more we “professionalize” teaching, the worse education gets, as measured by graduation rates and performance in a wide variety of areas. But that hardly is the point for too many education students, trained to see education, not as the introduction of students to the knowledge and practices necessary to become full participants in their communities, but rather as the liberation of children from various forms of oppression through social engineering.
The conflict of visions is made clear by one of the Minnesota graduate students, who asserted that Teach for America contributes to a “myth of meritocracy.” That is, emphasis on the value of high standards and hard work, especially when the work is aimed at gaining actual knowledge of particular things, is a fraud. On this view, success cannot be had simply by receiving a good, traditional education. On this all-too-common view, skills like literacy, mastery of math, and the like are not keys to success, and saying so takes attention away from the sorts of inequalities of power and “structural complexities” so often used as an excuse to put off genuine education reform. Far better, on this view, to demand ever-larger budgets from the government for the usual, trendy but outdated ideological indoctrination so typical of our education schools.
Perhaps Minnesota cannot live without teachers who have taken courses like the University of Minnesota’s “Creating Identities through Art and Performance” or “Diversity in Children’s Literature,” let alone “Introduction to Cultural Diversity and the World System” (all among required courses in the Department of “Elementary Education Foundations”), but I doubt it.
Yet Minnesota’s Governor, his Board of Teaching, and of course some graduate students, are showing a desire to see that only people who have been trained the School of Education way get to “educate.” The Governor vetoed funding to expand Teach for America in Minnesota in May. Then, in June, the Board of Teaching refused to renew a group license variance allowing Teach for America participants into the schools without the usual reams of paperwork being filled out by every relevant local district and principal.
One might wax cynical about a Board made up of products of the old system voting to make it harder for those who want to improve that system to actually teach. But cynicism about union self-protection and aggrandizement is not necessary, here. Ideology will serve just as well to explain the desire to keep out people who have trained in actual substantive areas of knowledge rather than the Progressive ideology so prevalent in education schools. It is not surprising, really, that the old guard among educators would want to keep out those who want to bring an emphasis on merit and achievement to a system mired in a culture of low standards, lack of accountability, and ideological blame-games as a substitute for high standards and hard work.
One of the graduate students saying “no” to Teach for America tried to be polite about it all. Teach for America participants, “however well meaning” in her view are wrong for Minnesota because “people who teach in schools should be rooted and have long-term stakes in those communities.” And that sentiment, at least, references a valuable instinct, to root education in the community whose values and traditions it should be passing on and building upon. But such instincts are healthy only to the extent such a community actually exists. And such a community is difficult to perceive in low-income schools that serve more as warehouses than places of genuine learning, and where learning too often is seen as something done in opposition to the values of the community.
Perhaps a bit less rootedness in a culture of failure and more dynamism might help the 49 percent of black students in Minnesota who do not graduate on time. Of course, like all numbers, the one I have noted is partial and a bit distorted. The reality is worse. According to the city of Minneapolis website, only 46.9% of all public school students in that city graduated on time in 2011.
There is no quick way out of the mess that has become American education. Nor will most one-size-fits-all “solutions” help. But reinvigorating low-income school districts with smart people with a passion to teach, who have earned degrees in real subjects and are willing to roll up their sleeves and teach under difficult circumstances should be, as they say, a “no brainer.”
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.