September 04, 2013

All that's wrong with charter schools in one short story

"Millennial" generation short-term focus, even narcissism.


Neoliberalism, including the Teach for America program.

Taylorism, going one better on educational pedagogy ideas of 50-75 years ago.

It's all right here, in this New York Times story about the growing charter school movement.

Here's the narcissism, short-timer syndrome, career-ladder move, etc.:
Tyler Dowdy just started his third year of teaching at YES Prep West, a charter school here. He figures now is a good time to explore his next step, including applying for a supervisory position at the school. 

Mr. Dowdy is 24 years old, which might make his restlessness seem premature. But then, his principal is 28. Across YES Prep’s 13 schools, teachers have an average of two and a half years of experience.  
Hey, a lot of teachers burn out in their first couple of years. That's deliberate from not viewing teaching as a vocation or a calling, but rather a stepping stone to other jobs. Isn't part of this, the rapid career advancement part, about Millennial narcissism? "Three years here, check that resume box, and could look good in the world of finance! Maybe I can even become a charter schools financial analyst! Occupy Me!"

And, yes, as I blogged about the original, actual Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City's Zuccoti Park, there is a lot of that spirit around. That comes from Occupiers' own demographic self-identification.

The neoliberalism? Here comes Teach for America!
The notion of a foreshortened teaching career was largely introduced by Teach for America, which places high-achieving college graduates into low-income schools for two years. Today, Teach for America places about a third of its recruits in charter schools. 
“Strong schools can withstand the turnover of their teachers,” said Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America. “The strongest schools develop their teachers tremendously so they become great in the classroom even in their first and second years.” 
Shock me. I'd argue that with the short-term commitment idea, Teach for America is about "volunteerism porn." Don't get me wrong, the broader AmeriCorps movement does some good. But, it's all part of that "Points of Light" syndrome that started under Poppy Bush and that neolib Democrats have been unable to ignore. And, shock me that Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp has an impeccable establishmentarian background. Another fine product of Highland Park.

And, let's also take note, as the New York Times did not, that her husband is president of America's largest charter-school network. Just a bit of conflict of interest, eh? But great for money-grubbing!

And, a Facebook friend points out a great speech related to this by social philosopher Ivan Illich which, while dated in some areas, overall addresses some of the same issues about volunteerism porn.

An excerpt or two:
Today, the existence of organizations like yours is offensive to Mexico. ...

For the past six years I have become known for my increasing opposition to the presence of any and all North American "dogooders" in Latin America. I am sure you know of my present efforts to obtain the voluntary withdrawal of all North American volunteer armies from Latin America - missionaries, Peace Corps members and groups like yours, a "division" organized for the benevolent invasion of Mexico.

I did not come here to argue. I am here to tell you, if possible to convince you, and hopefully, to stop you, from pretentiously imposing yourselves on Mexicans. ...

I do have deep faith in the enormous good will of the U.S. volunteer. However, his good faith can usually be explained only by an abysmal lack of intuitive delicacy. By definition, you cannot help being ultimately vacationing salesmen for the middle-class "American Way of Life," since that is really the only life you know. ...

Next to money and guns, the third largest North American export is the U.S. idealist, who turns up in every theater of the world: the teacher, the volunteer, the missionary, the community organizer, the economic developer, and the vacationing do-gooders.
OK, so "mission vacationers" might equal "charter short-termers." If the idealism is actually idealistic, Illich is still saying it doesn't translate, whether to Mexico, or to the inner cities of America, which he specifically mentions later in the piece. The rest of his insights flow from there by analogy. (That said, given that Illich had bones in his craw about various aspects of modern Westernism, including modern medicine, he always needs to be taken with a grain of salt.)

So, to put words in the mouth of a new Teach for America student? 

"Teach poor students for 2 years? Yay, me!" But, ask what we can do to reverse income inequality, and to do so for the poor, not just the middle class? Different story, usually.

Meanwhile, let's look again at Kopp's puffery, including the second sentence:
“Strong schools can withstand the turnover of their teachers,” said Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America. “The strongest schools develop their teachers tremendously so they become great in the classroom even in their first and second years.” 
Uhh, wrong. 
Studies have shown that on average, teacher turnover diminishes student achievement. Advocates who argue that teaching should become more like medicine or law say that while programs like Teach for America fill a need in the short term, educational leaders should be focused on improving training and working environments so that teachers will invest in long careers. 

“To become a master plumber you have to work for five years,” said Ronald Thorpe, president of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a nonprofit group that certifies accomplished teachers. “Shouldn’t we have some kind of analog to that with the people we are entrusting our children to?”

And, along with neoliberalism and the Great Recession, comes working these people longer hours, making sure they're "on call" longer, etc.

Next, neoliberalism + narcissism meet Business New Agism. It's "career coach" time, under a new name.
Every other week, new teachers meet with instructional coaches for 45-minute sessions
At this point, I officially threw up in my mouth. We now get an introduction to Taylorism being placed in charter schools. Note that a lot of the instruction is about getting kids to "present" better and other things.

Actually, of course, there are other things besides this that are wrong with charter schools. Those include them often being run for short-term profit (in that case, teachers at charters are just learning to act like owners/operators), approaching teaching as a commodity.

Meanwhile, I've not even touched too much on other issues with charter schools, like the whole profit angle in general. It's like utility deregulation in spades.

Many of the charter schools are under a neoliberal or big-business conservative mindset, like KIPP is. Others are religious, and it's usually not traditional Catholic schools trying to repackage themselves. Instead, it's usually vaguely "Protestant" success gospel churches and para-churches, often black ones in big cities, starting them. (And, I have personal knowledge of that last bit from my days in metro Dallas.)

And, I see that KIPP is expanding its presence in Dallas, specifically south Dallas. And, judging by the name of one of its schools, it's either partnering with black success gospel preachers or else pandering to them.

Meanwhile, as Thomas Frank has just detailed, parallel problems continue to grow in academia, too. My thoughts on his latest offering for The Baffler are here.

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