Former Inner-City Teacher Speaks Out
February 13, 2003 2:33 PM   Subscribe

I have a great deal of respect for everyone I know who's joined Teach for America and similar programs. Pretty much without exception, they're relatively well-off, upwardly mobile, Ivy League-educated young professionals who eschew a variety of far more lucrative and prestigious options to give something back, knowing that their choice will probably be endlessly trying and unrewarding. By and large, these folks leave college dedicated to the expectation that they can make a genuine difference somewhere. So when this idealism is crushed, who do we blame? (via Arts & Letters Daily)
posted by grrarrgh00 (35 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I can't think of any deceptive or exploitative reason anyone would want to undertake an effort like Teach for America, which is why I'm inclined to believe most, if not all, of Joshua Kaplowitz's story recounting his miserable Teach for America experience.

Is Joshua Kaplowitz just a whiny, thin-skinned, overprivileged white kid who thought that because he had deigned to dabble with the lower classes for a year, he was uniquely exempt from the rules? Very possibly. Did a school system more committed to passing students than addressing problems and a network of parents content to threaten and litigate their children's ways through school join forces to harsh on this poor guy's life? More than likely. Read the story and decide for yourself.
posted by grrarrgh00 at 2:35 PM on February 13, 2003

I read it yesterday, and basically believe Kaplowitz' story.

Teach for America's cramming session of educational theory sounds like pretty poor preparation. But it sounds like few things would prepare one for that school system.
posted by goethean at 2:39 PM on February 13, 2003

Is Joshua Kaplowitz just a whiny, thin-skinned, overprivileged white kid who thought that because he had deigned to dabble with the lower classes for a year, he was uniquely exempt from the rules?

Rules such as allowing students to maim each other and forcing teachers to assign grades based on wishful thinking?

I don't doubt one word of this article. I've heard the same stories 1000 times from my father, who has tought elementary school for almost 25 years.
posted by 4easypayments at 2:52 PM on February 13, 2003

I wish I found the story unbelievable, but I don't. My sister married an idealistic man who attempted to teach in North Philadelphia schools for a number of years before finally giving up. He describes his former position as varying between crowd control and riot police.
posted by mosch at 3:09 PM on February 13, 2003 [2 favorites]

It is really a shame what has happened to Teach for America. Although it still trades upon idealism to recruit people out of school, it has been almost entirely co-opted by the urban education establishment.

That establishment gladly uses TfA to fill in gaps in the budgets of horribly mismanaged schools, but reject as a matter of course the idea that schools are better taught by smart, ambitious people with high expectations and high standards for their students. TfA's thought-police style indoctrinations in "sensitivty" serve no purpose other than to make the recruits compliant in the low-expectations, no-consequences, self-esteem-curriculum culture of low-performance urban schools, and (not to mention) more accepting of the authority of the bureaucrats who run the show.
posted by MattD at 3:12 PM on February 13, 2003

i think TFA is a great program, despite the problems that are bound to plague any program that takes chances. i'm sorry to hear about this instance. on the other hand, it's not all hopeless. check out erin gruwell (not a TFA teacher, but similar idealism)- apparently they're making a movie about her.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 3:33 PM on February 13, 2003

This is not a figment of his imagination. I've heard this type of story from friends who are teachers. This is WHAT IT'S LIKE in downtown schools. They are out of control, and people (principals, administrators, parents, some teachers) are either unwillling or unable to take control. It takes a good principal with a serious discipline outlook and program to even make a dent in this kind of situation. How sad sad sad. No wonder the kids in inner city schools get worse and worse. And it's going to keep getting worse when those uneducated kids have kids of their own. It is a crisis.

It certainly is NOT the teacher's fault. Even experienced teachers are helpless.
posted by aacheson at 4:01 PM on February 13, 2003

Am I the only one thinking about catching these kids' behavior on video? That might help back up teachers when kids later claim abuse, or deny getting into fights. You can't expect a decent learning environment when battery goes without punishment. This is just crazy.
posted by beth at 4:18 PM on February 13, 2003

yeah, i have a friend that's "relatively well-off, upwardly mobile, Ivy League-educated" who volunteered five years ago in NYC. basically she was used as a cheap body to fill a classroom of held-back kids (some would just leave during recess, there was a pencil stabbing, one kid pushed another kid down the stairs, etc... typical third grade stuff :) which she was pretty unprepared for, like the principal advised her to throw a garbage can against the wall to get their attention! anyway, she didn't stay for her second year.
posted by kliuless at 4:21 PM on February 13, 2003

I'm not trying to attack you, sirmissalot. But I wonder what makes TFA a "wonderful" program? They throw recent graduates into the worst school with no meaningful training and abandon them. They don't just do it to this guy; they do it as a matter of course. It's part of a larger government attempt to cheap out on actually paying teachers, especially at the low-income schools; if you can spackle over holes with volunteers, why pay to replace the crumbling walls?

I suppose the idea, in its most generic form, is kind of nice, but at any level of detail beyond the generic it turns very nasty very quickly.
posted by argybarg at 4:31 PM on February 13, 2003

Oops -- you said "great," not "wonderful." My error. Everything else applies, though.
posted by argybarg at 4:32 PM on February 13, 2003

A Seafood Lover's Guide as to what seafood is "safe" to eat, and what's making you an accomplice to the destruction of the planet. I believe they have pocket cards too...
posted by togdon at 5:05 PM on February 13, 2003 [4 favorites]

Whoops... wrong window... damn you tabbed browsing!
posted by togdon at 5:06 PM on February 13, 2003 [1 favorite]

fair enough, argybargy, but for starters it's not part of a larger gov't program. TFA does get AmeriCorps money, but that's a very small piece of the pie. it's mostly supported as most nonprofits are -- by foundations and individuals.

i would say to not mistake the problem with an attempt at a solution. the american public school system is in terrible shape, and even as we speak, money is drying up b/c of enormous budget deficits in almost all of the states. so should only poor, uneducated people be thrown in to babysit the poor, uneducated kids? the learning in TFA is a two-way street, and believe it or not, many many people have very positive experiences in the program. for those that don't, i hope that--armed with their new understanding of the staggering depth of the problem--they will work to effect change at a higher level.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 5:06 PM on February 13, 2003

I have friends who've done Teach for America (in East Palo Alto, in Houston) and they both came out of it jaded & bitter. I think it's a good idea in theory but in practice accomplishes very little. Alternate certification programs are a better approach to getting more young & idealistic teachers into the school system.
posted by jcruelty at 5:08 PM on February 13, 2003 [1 favorite]

i'm surprised so many people have had bitter experiences with the program. i didn't do it myself but have always been a fan. too bad.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 5:22 PM on February 13, 2003

For anyone who is interested in digging deeper, there's an upcoming book that gives a broader view of the program: No Child Left Behind: Voices from Teach For America, written by a TFA alum but including interviews and essays from a wide range of program participants.
posted by twsf at 5:31 PM on February 13, 2003

This is not a condemnation of TFA but an inside look at the pathetically bad schools we have in this country. It doesn't point fingers at any one cause. Instead, it brings to our attention the fact that in order to teach kids well, support has to come from all involved: good adminstation + good teachers + good parents. If one fails, the other can't always compensate.
posted by Witold at 5:48 PM on February 13, 2003

The account was just a tad self-serving and sensationalized (see: the dig about the fatness of the principal) but I cannot disbelieve the basics of it. Entrenched government schools can be cesspools, and the whole sensitivity-victimization model that is so loudly and oft' trumpeted by certain vocal figures in the inner-city communities doesn't help one whit.

And though this was more an indictment of this particular school, the TFA ideal must be questioned. Given the educational climate in the schools which make use of the program, there is no way that TFA is still a good idea. There are four year degrees in elementary education, with both theory and hands-on practical training, for a reason. Given the difficulties that properly trained educators have in these environments, the notion that you can bypass the entire process and have success verges on the ridiculous.

To me, it's educational malpractice. These schools Sending someone to schools where the need for quality education is so very great and stakes are the highest with nothing but a summer of limited hands-on experience and a bunch of feel good talking points is unconscionable. Thank goodness some professional standards cannot be breached, or the minds behind TFA would probably think it wise to train people to defend indigent capitol murder defendants by giving them training on the emotional problems of the poor killer and having them watch a collection of the Law & Order greatest hits.
posted by Dreama at 6:27 PM on February 13, 2003 [1 favorite]

There are four year degrees in elementary education, with both theory and hands-on practical training, for a reason.

Well, my sense is that people with this type of training do not wind up in the kinds of schools you're talking about. The whole point of TFA is to place the students in underserved schools. So it's generally not going to be a choice between a TFA volunteer or a experienced teacher with a four year degree. It's a TFA volunteer or nobody, or maybe a TFA volunteer or somebody just as grossly underqualified but without the enthusiam, vision, or smarts that a TFA volunteer could bring to the job.

So, while I agree that it's deplorable that such a program even needs to exist, it does no harm (and maybe a small amount of good), and at the very least will give the volunteers (who, after all, may wind up in influential positions in the world later in life) an appreciation for the problems of low-income communities. People tend to scoff at this justification, but volunteer experiences like that actually can change people's values and even career choices. I'm in law school now pursuing a career in public interest law largely because of my experience as a VISTA right after college.
posted by boltman at 7:28 PM on February 13, 2003

boltman, you'll have to do a lot of work to make me believe that the majority of the other 19 teachers at Emery Elementary and the majority of teachers in inner city schools across this country don't have education degrees or, at the very least, some type of collegiate level education training.
posted by Dreama at 7:44 PM on February 13, 2003 [1 favorite]

Great timing Grrarrgh, but scary article. Does anyone out there have any particularly positive experiences with Teach for America? The deadline to apply for next year is next friday (Feb 21) and I decided months ago that I am going to apply. TFA also does work in very rural areas, such as northern Mississippi and NW New Mexico. Am I completely fooling myself thinking these areas might be better than innercity areas?
posted by krakedhalo at 8:33 PM on February 13, 2003

Well, I couldn't find any statistics specifically on how many teachers have which kind of degree, but I did find this link with a wealth of info on the exploding trend of "alternative certification" where teachers with no education training whatsoever can get certified to teach by passing a few standardized tests. Apparently it's all the rage in big cities and places with teacher shortages.

I found some other eye-opening statistics though:

this report says that in NYC, 14% of all public school teachers are not even certified, with the highest concentration of uncertified teachers in the poorest districts.

This report says that a quarter of all teachers enter the profession having not met state licencing requirements.

From another study from Illinois: The analysis found that "children in the highest-poverty, highest-minority and lowest-achieving schools are roughly five times more likely to be taught by teachers who failed at least one teacher certification test than children in the lowest-poverty, lowest-minority, highest-achieving schools," according to the Sun-Times.

Or how about this article, explaining that 25 percent of newly hird teachers in Texas are uncertifed and that in urban areas the total number of uncertifed teachers is 36 percent.

So, no, it's probably not a majority, but it is a substantial minority of the teachers in these schools have are not qualified to be teaching there.
posted by boltman at 8:47 PM on February 13, 2003

I recognize this school because it is exactly like the one that I taught in, and that my husband still teachers in, except that ours is a high school.
No one who is unprepared educationally for teaching should have to go into a situation like that. I have a masters in education, and I was barely up to the task for the few years I was there.
As for the principal- you wouldn't believe how many of them are like that. The principal of our HS ran out a boat-rocker who was undergoing chemo and had just had a bilateral mastectomy. Her offense? She wanted to know where all of the snack-store money went. It wasn't going to the teacher supply fund, the student support fund, or anywhere
It is sad and common. Krakedhalo- good luck. I hope to hell you have a great experience. I miss teaching (what little of it I did).
posted by oflinkey at 8:52 PM on February 13, 2003

but I did find this link with a wealth of info on the exploding trend of "alternative certification" where teachers with no education training whatsoever can get certified to teach by passing a few standardized tests. Apparently it's all the rage in big cities and places with teacher shortages.

Hmmm. Usually I beat the "certification is largely useless" drum when this comes up, but I'm not so sure this time. After completing a math degree, I went on to do a secondary education certification, largely because of some good substitute teaching experiences coupled with a positive experience running a university summer course for advanced high school students. 80-90% of the classwork for the certification seemed like common sense or BS to me. I think it could have been condensed from 3 semesters into 2 classes. But reading Kaplowitz' story makes me think that at least I got some classroom management theory. Event if only a fraction of it was useful.

Still, I think the root of the problem isn't training. Part of it is, as I think just about anyone who's done certification will tell you, teaching is just one of those things you're simply not prepared for when you walk in to your student teaching or internship experience. The first few weeks/months are where you really learn.

But the other part of it seems to be that the training reflects the system, as far as classroom management/discipline efforts go. The degree of the problem in Kaplowitz' article went beyond anything I had to deal with at the nice, middle-class suburban high school I ended up at, but I recognize the pattern: one of the reasons classroom management is difficult because even if you're familiar with William Glasser et all, have your subject matter down cold, are personable, creative, engaging, prepared, and know a few Jedi Mind tricks, it doesn't take long for certain kids to realize when there are no enforcable consequences for misbehavior, begin to test you, and take advantage of the system.

The conclusion I eventually came to is that there's a broken concept at the center of the public school system: that participation in that system is mandatory, rather than a privilege -- and believe me, I say that with a heart that bleeds as much as the next generally liberal thinker for the underpriviliged, maybe more. The problem is that once you throw out the possibility of denying participation to those whose behavior is consistently disruptive, you break the system for everyone else. And that is essentially what Kaplowitz describes. And they don't teach you the "these are the terms under which you may remain part of the classroom" style of discipline in education programs, I think, because it's becoming something of an exception, rather than the rule, in many public schools.

There are a lot of problems with simply offering students with behavior problems the shape-up-or-ship-out choice -- and giving teachers power to enforce it. I don't doubt there are some teachers who would abuse that authority sometimes. I also don't doubt that there are many students from age 6-16 who simply wouldn't have the necessary insight to make the right choice. And then there's the whole question of what else these kids are going to be doing if they're not in school. But the fact remains that if you just leave them there, that will often break the institution for everyone else. At that point, neither the 1-4 incorrigible students nor the 25 eager ones are learning, and it's hard to imagine a worse scenario.
posted by namespan at 1:04 AM on February 14, 2003 [3 favorites]

One more thing... the last paragraph of the article:

I know for sure that inner-city schools don’t have to be hellholes like Emery and its District of Columbia brethren, with their poor administration and lack of parental support, their misguided focus on children’s rights, their anti-white racism, and their lawsuit-crazed culture. Some of my closest TFA friends, thrilled to be liberated from the D.C. system, went on to teach at D.C. charter schools, where they really can make a difference in underprivileged children’s lives. For example, at Paul Junior High School, which serves students with the same economic and cultural background as those at Emery, the principal’s tough approach to discipline fosters a serious atmosphere of scholarship, and parents are held accountable, because the principal can kick their children back to the public school system if they refuse to cooperate. A friend who works at the Hyde School, which emphasizes character education (and sits directly across a field from Emery), tells me that this charter school is quiet and orderly, the teachers are happy, and the children are achieving at a much higher level

Sounds like Kaplowitz' idealism isn't totally crushed, just bruised and infused with a bit of wisdom from the school of hard knocks. Inner city education can work. Maybe I'll see if there are any open positions at Paul and Hyde.
posted by namespan at 1:17 AM on February 14, 2003

Does anyone here resent their company paying outside consultants to come in and tell everyone things they already know? I think it's a similiar dynamic with TFA. You have inexperienced outsiders with little training coming into a desperate situation. On top of that, the inexperienced outsiders are, more often than not, from a completely different culture.

Why would anyone resent an outsider? Would engineers' morale/work attitude at LockheedMartin be affected if the executive suite decided to hire anyone with a college degree and trained them for two weeks and then decreed them to be an engineer? Of course, it wouldn't happen and that's the point. Society has decided that teaching our children is not a high priority. Anyone ever heard the phrase: "Those that can, do; those that can't, teach" What kind of people are going to be attracted to a profession that receives little or no respect from society in general.

BTW, this guy that got sued for $20 million. He sounds like a self-righteous, overpriviledged baby. "Hey, I'm here. Everyone pay attention because I am here. Now all you kids who don't understand that school is important - all of a sudden you're s'posed to understand that and change your behavior because I'm here instead of making a little bit more money with my liberal arts degree, l.a. degree? (oh yeah, i couldn't really find a decent paying job with my liberal arts degree so i decided to teach for america and say that I'm doing it for the kids)" Add the fact that he's operating outside his peer group and that he doesn't seem to have any understanding of his kids or their families. Why did he ever think he'd succeed? oh yeah, everything else that's happened in life has been as simple as signing up for summer camp. sign up, show up, do the thing, that's it. How completely outside the experience of the vast majority of his students.
posted by chris0495 at 7:49 AM on February 14, 2003

Namespan got it right -- it is almost impossible to teach kids who don't want to learn, and who cannot be effectively disciplined due to lack of institutional or parental will.

The absolutely essential step in any kind of reform of inner-city schools is creating mechanisms so that kids who do want to learn and who can be disciplined can be taught free of the interference of the, effectively, ineducable children.

Charter schools are one mechanism, more radical school choice another ... and broader powers of expulsion and relegation to continuation or alternative schooling yet another.
posted by MattD at 8:16 AM on February 14, 2003

I don't think this is an indictment of TFA. Even the teachers who had been there for years and weren't from TFA were having the same problems.

But the sad thing is that it's not just the poor areas... my wife teaches in a relatively well-off area and the same problems exist - although not on the scale that inner city schools deal with. But you have violence in the classes, kids trying to intimate teachers, kids punching pregnant teachers.. it's incredible.

Expulsion isn't an answer - it just thows the problem out of the system. I like the idea of compulsary alternative school, but then how do you argue spending more money on a student that doesn't want to learn than on a student that does?
posted by rich at 8:36 AM on February 14, 2003

Advice to any would be teacher from a current teacher. Don't do it. Don't bother. If I had college to do over again, I would most certainly pick another career.
posted by BrodieShadeTree at 9:03 AM on February 14, 2003 [1 favorite]

Advice to anyone that wants an interesting life and a secure career: Enter the teaching profession, the poorer the school district the better. Over the next ten years, HUGE resources will have to be poured into school districts nation-wide. The fact that the administrators and faculty median age has been creeping up for the last twenty years bodes well for young dedicated careerists. I believe that our nation is at the beginnings of a revaluation of public education. Clearly, it cannot continue on its current path. Something as huge as the public school system does not go unfixed. Basically, my view point is that it's always darkest before the dawn.
posted by chris0495 at 10:08 AM on February 14, 2003

Smaller class size. One teacher one student almost everyone would agree would be successful for all but the most lost cause students, but obviously not feasible. One teacher five students would still be solid. 10 or 20 students probably managable. Over 30 or 40 is just ridiculous.

I'd like to see an experimental school that spends money only on teachers. No computers, few books, supplies, programs, etc. Just have a high teacher to student ratio and see what happens.
posted by callmejay at 10:41 AM on February 14, 2003 [1 favorite]

chris0495 -- Kaplowitz isn't really whining about poor-poor-upper-middle-class-him, he's highlighting the absurdities in the system with an example he knows very well, and it's pretty hard to argue that what he described isn't absurd. Teachers aren't allowed to touch students to break up a fight? Bogus corporal punishment charges -- followed by a lawsuit for 20 million when emergency room doctors confirm there have been no injuries? A principal who refuses to allow any kind of discipline? If you think that's the way things should be, I guess it's easy to see his article as a very long whine. If you believe his description, it's hard to understand why he didn't just quit. And there's not much indication that he expected it to be easy, nor is there any real indication that he expected to quit, even under ridiculously adverse circumstances. He stuck with the fifth graders until he figured things out, got moved to the second graders, and probably would have taught another year if he hadn't been sued. The only weak moment he mentioned in the article is when he asked TFA to be moved.

Advice to anyone that wants an interesting life and a secure career: Enter the teaching profession, the poorer the school district the better. Over the next ten years, HUGE resources will have to be poured into school districts nation-wide.

Interesting life, yes. Secure career -- well, I have a number of friends and acquaintances who would disagree, who are currently waiting for pink slips. Many states are facing a budget crisis right now, with depressed tax revenues, and for better or worse, the federal government has cut taxes and diverted attention/resources to the war on terror and running a deficit to boot, so it won't be much help. Unless the resources come from the private sector, it'll be a while before they're poured into the system.

I can't argue with interesting, though. Even at a marginal school with just enough admin support, you really can make a difference and enjoy interacting with many of the kids, and at some schools, there's chances to really create classrooms that rock. I understand BrodieShadeTree's comment -- I went into the system and came right back out not long after (and two years later, find myself as an unemployed software developer -- hah!). Not only was the system a little broken, it also wasn't right for me in some other ways. It's not right for everyone, but it can work. If you're checking it out, my advice is to try to do your education in such a way that teaching is *one* of your options -- get a practical minor or second major that increases your options, and get experience while you're in school working at a number of jobs. And understand that it will not be easy, and check yourself to see if what you really want is to sacrifice a lot of time, sweat, and other possibilities for your life in order to meet and be a part of the education of hundreds of america's best and worst children.
posted by namespan at 10:50 AM on February 14, 2003 [1 favorite]

Smaller class size. One teacher one student almost everyone would agree would be successful for all but the most lost cause students, but obviously not feasible. One teacher five students would still be solid. 10 or 20 students probably managable. Over 30 or 40 is just ridiculous.

Classroom sizes have generally been getting smaller over the last 30 years and things have been getting worse, not better.

Plus, one student per teacher would hardly be ideal. First of all, the implication of that is that teaching is a profession that requires no particular skills. Or that it requires skills that can be equally practiced. The idea that you could infinitely increase the pool of teachers without seriously decreasing the average quality is somewhat demeaning to skilled teachers.

And two, if teaching skills are not distributed equally among the adult population, then there would be a huge "separate but equal" issue as those with better skills tended to create geographic clumps or were assigned on anythong but a purely random basis.

The reverse is probably the best ideal (though equally unfeasible), the ideal would probably be that you find the best teacher in the world for a particular subject or age level and then find a way for everybody to have that same teacher.

Of course, then you'd have a very intellectually sterile environment where for each age or subject there was only one "right way" to teach it.
posted by obfusciatrist at 12:05 PM on February 14, 2003

Smaller class size. One teacher one student almost everyone would agree would be successful for all but the most lost cause students, but obviously not feasible. One teacher five students would still be solid. 10 or 20 students probably managable. Over 30 or 40 is just ridiculous.
Classroom sizes have generally been getting smaller over the last 30 years and things have been getting worse, not better.
I can speak to that, both from personal experience, and from some policy research my brother did. There is no significant correlation between class size and standardized test scores once you get pat about 10. Curiously, there is also no correlation between per pupil expenditure and test scores either -- inner city D.C. has some of the highest per pupil expenditure out there, and lowest scores (note that these are two chesnuts of politicians from the right and the left when it comes to suggestions for improving education). But apparently smaller schools do have some correlation.

My direct experience also suggested classroom size didn't matter. My biggest problem class was also my second smallest class. My largest class was so well behaved it was almost surreal (you know that part in Better of Dead where the whole geometry class is just rapt? It was nearly like that).

Of course it's easier to give real individual attention to students during class when the classes are smaller, and I suspect the well-behavedness of a class has more to do with the combo of personalities than the sheer numbers, but larger numbers make the potential for a bad combo greater. But the bottom line is, if you know your stuff and are given the power to impose real consequences -- be it citizenship grades that mean something or the right to participate in the classroom -- you can manage a group of 30+ students.
posted by namespan at 8:58 PM on February 14, 2003

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