I would like to say that this is not a dig at those who dedicate part of their lives serving the most disadvantaged as teachers in some of the most destitute schools that are almost universally situated in impoverished, inner-city neighborhoods. I commend those individuals who opt to serve as educators via the "teaching/teacher corp" programs across the county. I received a phone call today from a friend who is with a number of Amherst alumni and current students who have chosen such a path; they are now enduring both the long days of teaching summer school and Mississippi's sweltering heat. With that said, however, this post expands upon a question that has stayed with me since my graduate seminar, Social Structure and Culture in the Study of Race and Urban Poverty (which has helped me crystallize my thoughts on a number of issues), with Sociologist William Julius Wilson this past semester: what are the unintended consequences of these programs on the populations which they were created to serve and empower?
My co-blogger, Jeremy, was in the class as well and we had some pretty heated discussions about some of the books we read as this survey course touched on topics on urban poverty from cultural continuities and the lasting impact of slavery (Orlando Patterson's Rituals of Blood) to the underground economy of poor neighborhoods (Sudhir Venkatesh's Off the Books). The one book that spawned the lasting thought that pushed me to write this post that I just cannot shake is Columbia University scholar Kathryn Neckerman's Schools Betrayed: Roots of Failure in Inner-City Education. In Schools Betrayed, Neckerman, analyzing historical data on Chicago public schools from 1920 – 1960, aims to highlight the ways in which schools themselves—taken as individual institutions—were betrayed by intermediary actors—school board officials alongside education policies drafted at the state level but carried out blindly by local actors. She shows that these race-neutral policies enacted did not have race-neutral outcomes: the dovetailing of school policy and ecological conditions sowed the seeds for the then and present-day deplorable conditions of inner-city schools. The installment of tracking or dual time programs in schools, for examples, were not race-based but the implementation of such policies had negative effects on students' academic preparation and future employment prospects, especially Black students because of the schools they attended.
Ok, so why do I bring up Teach for America, The Mississippi Teacher Corp, and the many others across the nation? It was because of Neckerman's particular analysis of the impact of teacher placement on the students, family, school, and community as a whole. Of the policies that she outlines, I believe that one of the most detrimental consequences from these policy changes was that which caused teachers to cycle in and out of certain classrooms and certain schools, principally those which served predominately Black and low-income communities. Trust is an understated factor in schooling. And the way in which policy was carried out severely weakened the trust between teacher and student, teacher and parent, teacher and school, and even the trust between teachers themselves. In other words, after these teachers "did their time," they could transfer to "better" schools and leave their troubles (and the troubled) behind. This is what made me think of the present state of programs like Teach for America and other like organizations. To put it bluntly, this book made me further question the efficacy of programs like Teach for America and the like: the inexperienced teachers (inexperienced with respect to years of teaching experience not intellect or drive), short-term contracts, and location of placement. Some point to the cultural differences between college students and those from inner-city schools. I believe that, although one barrier to be sure, it would be a bit short-sighted to stop there. As I stated above, the cycling of new faces in the classroom via these programs is what concerns me the most.
Clearly there are many success stories for those on the rosters of such organizations. The teacher of the year for Miami-Dade Public Schools is a Teach for America placement. For continued excellence, let us not forget the Teach for America alumni who started the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools where economically disadvantaged students are performing on par with their middle class counterparts. But while we celebrate the success, we must not forget the number of people who stop after a month, a week, or those who make it only one day. I do not have the statistics on this; I just have anecdotal evidence from my interviews with Teach for America representatives before I was offered a position in Miami (I did not accept the position because similar thoughts passed through my mind then).
I bring up this point to caution us to think of the consequences of the short term contracts of Teach for America and like organizations. These programs are so appealing to college students, some of whom use Teach for America as life "pit stops" or use such programs to pad resumes or "give back" without exactly knowing the lion's den they about to enter into. Nevertheless, the students in the schools see eager faces one moment and then look around the next and that face is gone. I am not saying that we are better without these programs. Surely Not! I just do not want to be ignorant of the disappointment of being let down when that the legal contract ends or when that "social" contract runs its course. But, the question becomes, what's the alternative? I would appreciate any comments on the issue brought up here or any thoughts on such programs.