Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Best and Brightest Have Let Us Down

I get very tired very quickly when I hear that we need the best and brightest to become classroom teachers in the United States. For one, it's incredibly insulting because it assumes that the teachers we have now in public schools are somehow subpar, which is not true. Further, it also assumes that the elite students at elite colleges need to swoop down and save education because the best students make the best teachers, right?

Wrong. Oh, so wrong.

Don't misunderstand me: I support all effective teachers across the country who want to make a difference in any type of school, public or private, and who want to educate students. This includes those from Teach for America, the program that began in 1990 at Princeton University and places the best and brightest into urban schools for specified periods of time, usually three years. The program has been criticized for providing a short-term conscience break for smarties who then leave the classroom and make billions as hedge fund managers and tech company start-up junkies. It has also been lauded for enabling the most difficult school districts to staff their classes with committed teachers who knew what they were getting into they signed up for TFA.

For 15 years, the program grew. For the past two, growth has stopped. That's bad news for the districts that rely on TFA graduates, but it might be the beginning of good news for the rest of public education. Why? Although TFA was founded on a laudable goal, the program was also responsible for pushing some of the worst reforms education has seen in decades. From the article:
Teach for America has sent hundreds of graduates to Capitol Hill, school superintendents’ offices and education reform groups, seeding a movement that has supported testing and standards, teacher evaluations tethered to student test scores, and a weakening of teacher tenure.
It seems that the best and brightest are neither when it comes to new ideas on how to improve education. They, along with the conservative know-nothings who inhabit statehouse governments and education commissionerships, relied on untested data purporting to show a connection between student test scores and teacher effectiveness, and supported ever more Charter schools that take public money away from public schools that have legal mandates to deliver a quality education to all students. Weakening teacher tenure and injecting market competition in the schools round out the final failures on their list as both destroy the culture and ethos that have protected the public schools from unwanted political interference, commercialization and data-mongers of all political stripes.

Ten years from now, those still left in education will look back on this era as not only misguided, but destructive; an era from which it will take a few years to recover and reclaim the ideas that actually work in the classroom. By then, the best and brightest will be back on Wall Street or law school or boardrooms touting their latest ventures and perhaps reflecting on the years they spent in the program. I applaud their efforts as teachers. For many, it will inform the rest of their lives. For others, it allowed them to realize a community service dream in a neglected corner of the country. 
But for their support of ideas that have wreaked havoc in the classroom and resulted in a culture of testing that undermines effective teaching, I will forever rue the day that they joined the reform conversation. I have met far better and far brighter minds who didn't attend elite schools and who have enriched teaching and learning across the United States.

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