Saturday, June 30th, 2012...4:24 pm

TFA, the Amway of Education

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Writing in the 22 March 2012 issue of the New York Review of Books, Diane Ravitch critiques America’s education-industrial complex, what Pasi Sahlberg calls “the Global Education Reform Movement” or GERM, whose central doctrine is teaching to the test, while she takes particular aim at the Wendy Kopp pyramid scheme, Teach for America (TFA).

Like George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program is part of what Pasi Sahlberg calls “the Global Education Reform Movement,” or GERM. GERM demands teaching to the test. GERM assumes that students must be constantly tested, and that the results of these tests are the most important measures and outcomes of education. The scores can be used not only to grade the quality of every school, but to punish or reward students, teachers, principals, and schools. Those at the top of the education system, the elected officials and leaders who make the rules, create the budgets, and allocate resources, are never accountable for the consequences of their decisions. GERM assumes that people who work in schools need carrots and sticks to persuade (or compel) them to do their best.

Ravitch’s exemplar of schools and education professionals that work (and in which teachers and administrators work together) is Finland:

In Finland, the subject of the first part of this article, teachers work collaboratively with other members of the school staff; they are not “held accountable” by standardized test scores because there are none. Teachers devise their own tests, to inform them about their students’ progress and needs. They do their best because it is their professional responsibility. Like other professionals, as Pasi Sahlberg shows in his book Finnish Lessons, Finnish teachers are driven by a sense of intrinsic motivation, not by the hope of a bonus or the fear of being fired. Intrinsic motivation is also what they seek to instill in their students. In the absence of standardized testing by which to compare their students and their schools, teachers must develop, appeal to, and rely on their students’ interest in learning.

Of course there is less economic inequality in Finland and fewer social disparities. For all the TFA hype (not borne out by research data, as Ravitch points out), poverty is the main impediment to education in the US.

The Duke University economist Helen F. Ladd recently delivered a major address titled “Education and Poverty: Confronting the Evidence,” in which she demonstrated that poverty drags down academic performance, not only in the US, but in other nations as well.2 To argue, as so many of the corporate reformers blithely do, that poverty is used as “an excuse” for bad teachers is either naive or ignorant. Or it may be a way of avoiding the politically difficult subjects of poverty and income inequality, both of which are rising and threaten the well-being of our society.

The corporate reformers believe that entrepreneurship will unleash a new era of innovation and creativity, but it seems mostly to have unleashed canny entrepreneurs who seek higher test scores by any means possible (such as excluding students with disabilities or students learning English as a second language) or who seek maximum profit.

Some “reformers” (including the politocracy and punditocracy) would like nothing better than to raze public education and start from scratch. Well, we have a laboratory where that experiment has been taking place: New Orleans, in which Hurricane Katrina wiped out the school system and the teachers’ unions.

As for New Orleans, it is the poster child of the corporate reformers because the public school system and the teachers’ union were wiped out by Hurricane Katrina. Now about 70 percent of the students in the district attend charter schools, staffed by TFA and other young teachers. Reformers have portrayed New Orleans as an educational miracle, and the media have faithfully parroted this characterization as proof that nonunion charter schools are successful. But few paid attention when the state of Louisiana recently released grades for every school in the state and 79 percent of the charter schools formed by the state received a grade of D or F.

“How, and How Not, to Improve the Schools” is available on line.

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