Plenty enough has been said about Michelle Malkin’s op-ed this week calling for Congress to cut federal funding to Teach for America because it is supporting the criminal justice reform activism of alumni and staffers such as Deray McKesson and Brittany Packnett. Yet let’s keep in mind two matters that few have mentioned — and that Malkin has conveniently ignored for her own ideological purposes.
The first? That the nation’s university schools of education, which train the majority of instructors going into classrooms, have done an absolutely shoddy job of recruiting and training aspiring teachers.
As the National Council on Teacher Quality determined last year in its second annual review of ed schools and other teacher training programs, just 107 out of the 1,612 ed school programs it vetted provided the instruction aspiring teachers needed to be successful in teaching children. This data isn’t surprising. As NCTQ determined in 2006, just 11 out of 71 ed schools surveyed at the time taught teachers all that they needed to provide adequate reading instruction; these results have changed very little within the last nine years.
Even worse, as NCTQ revealed in a study released last November, half of the 6,000 assignments given in 862 courses at 33 ed school programs surveyed by NCTQ were criterion-deficient, or lacked the clear scope of knowledge and feedback aspiring teachers need to achieve mastery in their work. Two hundred ninety-five of the 509 ed schools surveyed had grading standards for students that were far lower than those for other majors on campus. Because these courses were so lacking in quality, students ended up getting plenty of easy As, giving them a false sense of accomplishment and preparation.
The results of this low-quality training can be seen in the fact that three out of every 10 fourth-graders in the nation read Below Basic in 2013, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s test of student achievement. Especially for poor and minority children, the shoddy training provided by ed schools almost all but ensures that those taught by their graduates will learn little and suffer educationally as well as economically down the road.
This low-quality teacher training comes at a high price to taxpayers. States, along with the federal government and aspiring teachers, spend $7 billion annually on sustaining ed school operations. When you consider that teacher salaries are based on attaining additional degrees (which is often funded by districts and states) and not on performance, the costs of laggard ed schools borne by taxpayers are even greater.
The second: That no organization has done a better job of setting a higher standard for recruiting and training teachers as well as showing how much better teacher training can be than Teach For America.
A decade of data has pretty much shown that Teach For America does a better job than ed schools in recruiting and training aspiring teachers. A 2013 study on Teach For America conducted by research outfit Mathematica determined that its recruits outperformed ed school peers; in fact, the average student taught by a Teach for America recruit gained an additional 2.6 months of learning over a peer taught by a traditionally-trained teacher. Particularly for poor and minority kids, with which Teach For America works with the most (and whose needs the outfit is geared toward serving), the outfit’s recruits are helping them gain the high-quality teaching they deserve (and taxpayers of all ideological stripes should expect).
At the same time, Teach For America has shown new and better ways for recruiting and training aspiring teachers. Over the past three decades, the outfit has shown that teacher training programs should deliberately recruit entrepreneurial self-starters with strong leadership ability (alongside subject-matter competency in the subjects they teach and empathy for children of all backgrounds) needed to lead classrooms. At the same time, Teach For America’s focus on quickly and comprehensively training aspiring teachers in how to actually teach in classrooms exposes the damage wrought by ed schools and their emphasis on unproven instructional theories. Meanwhile Teach For America’s success in recruiting high-quality black and Latino collegians into teaching (with one out of every two recruits in 2014 coming from minority backgrounds) has proven lie to the arguments of ed schools that they just can’t provide children with teachers who look like them.
With two out of every three of its recruits remaining in education — and becoming school leaders, policy players, activists, and social entrepreneurs — the benefits of Teach For America’s efforts aren’t just seen in classrooms. From the work of Michelle Rhee in forming TNTP and launching the so far successful reform of D.C.’s traditional district, to Kaya Henderson’s continuation of those efforts in the nation’s capital, to the work of the likes of KIPP founders Michael Feinberg and Dave Levin in launching charter schools, Teach For America has helped advance the very efforts in advancing systemic reform that are helping more kids succeed in school and in life.
All of this comes at little comparable cost to taxpayers. Federal funding and contracts with districts account for just 20 percent of Teach For America’s revenue of $211 million in 2013-2014. The rest of its support comes from reform-minded philanthropies who understand the critical need for overhauling how we recruit, train, and compensate teachers.
Given the low quality of teaching in the nation’s schools and the success of Teach For America in providing high-quality teachers, you would think that Malkin would call for states and the federal government to stop funding the former and praise the quantifiable and qualitative successes of the latter. But given her fact-free jeremiads against implementing Common Core reading and math standards, neither her claptrap against Teach For America nor silence about the failure of ed schools is shocking. Malkin has proven in the past that she doesn’t do her homework — and her ideological blinders (including a thoughtless and overly-sentimental allegiance to institutions of law and order regardless of misbehavior) assure that she wouldn’t put the work in this time around.
By focusing solely on the fact that Teach For America alumni are playing their proper (and laudable) roles as participants in civil society on behalf of children and communities, Malkin fails to pay any mind to the great work that the organization and its recruits do on a daily basis in providing kids with high-quality teaching. At the same time, she ignores the much-bigger problem of low-quality teacher training that goes on in ed schools and the consequences on America’s public school systems. If anything, Malkin seems to be more in common cause with traditionalists and teachers’ unions opposed to Teach For America’s very existence than with the taxpayers (including families and their children) for whom she expresses so much concern.
Meanwhile Malkin seems to ignore the reality that the nation’s criminal justice systems are in as sore a need of reform as public education — and that as school reformers, Teach For America alumni and staffers can no more ignore the consequences of those woes on children outside of schools than the crises within them.
The high-profile slayings of black men such as Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray just exemplify the problems of overmilitarized police departments, overcriminalization of youth, perpetuation of state-sanctioned racial bigotry, drug war overkill, and violations of civil liberties by law enforcement that have been detailed at length by progressives, conservatives, and libertarians alike.
If anything, the deaths of these young men have galvanized bipartisan support for criminal justice reform. So arguments by Malkin (as well as those by conservatives within the school reform movement such as Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute) that McKesson and Packnett (along with Teach For America) are “agitating” for a “leftist agenda” ignores reality.
As with school reform, there are plenty of good reasons for such bipartisanship. As Dropout Nation has detailed over the last year, the enabling of incompetent and criminally-venal cops by state laws and criminal justice bureaucracies parallels the protection of laggard and criminally-abusive teachers by state education agencies and traditional districts. The use of excessive force laws that allow rogue officers to murder young black men with impunity are little different from the tenure and teacher dismissal laws that keep even child abusers in classrooms. The only difference between the actions of police unions such as New York City’s Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and those of NEA and AFT affiliates is that the former carry guns.
As with the consequences of failing and mediocre traditional districts, the consequences of abusive criminal justice systems are borne hardest by the communities in which poor and minority children live. As Balko and others reported within the last year, the use of courts and cops by municipalities as revenue generators (in the form of arbitrarily handed out traffic ticket and rulings that often double those initial penalties) essentially impoverish already poor families. The U.S. Department of Justice’s probes of police practices in Ferguson, Mo., and Cleveland have also revealed how racial bigotry and faulty policing bears out in use of excessive force (including murders in all but name) of young black men and women.
But the consequences for kids aren’t just outside schoolhouse doors. Traditional districts (along with some charter school operators) have long played a pernicious role in fostering a school-to-prison pipeline that condemns far too many kids to despair. School districts accounted for three out of every 10 status cases referred to juvenile courts in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, the second-highest source of referrals after law enforcement agencies.
Now, thanks to the law enforcement agencies districts have formed on their own (as well as bringing in cops from the outside to serve as school resource officers to handle student misbehavior better managed by teachers and school leaders), American public education has also become key players in the police militarization plaguing our communities. With help from the federal government, districts such as Compton Unified in California are arming their cops with AR-15 rifles and grenades that should never be anywhere near classrooms.
The results can be seen in districts in cities such as Birmingham, Ala., where police officers in Birmingham, Ala., using Freeze +P pepper spray against eight children attending the traditional district there (the subject of a lawsuit filed on their behalf by the Southern Poverty Law Center); some 110 incidents of pepper-spraying occurred in the district since 2006. Because half of school resource officer programs (and other law enforcement) are patrolling elementary school hallways, it means that even kids in kindergarten and first grade are being criminalized at early ages.
There’s no way that any school reformer, much less those black and brown such as McKesson and Packnett, can avoid standing in common cause with criminal justice reformers of all stripes to advocate against these abuses of state power. Considering that Teach For America is has been dedicated from day one to providing poor and minority children with high-quality education, it also cannot ignore the injustices happening outside schools to the students their recruits serve. And as Atlantic Monthly‘s Conor Friedersdorf declared last month in a piece on police brutality, no conservative or liberal, much less a moral human being, can ignore the pressing need to seriously address the reality that there are police officers acting as thugs against people of all backgrounds — especially young black men and women — under the guise of enforcing the law.
Seems like the problem lies not with Teach For America or its alumni, but with Malkin’s immorality and that of her amen corner.