U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Teach for America: The Hidden Curriculum of Liberal Do-Gooders

Dear Readers: Since our posts have slowed down considerably with the holidays, I thought I would offer some reading content, which just so happens to double as shameless self-promotion. I give you my article, just published in the Winter 2012 edition of Jacobin Magazine:

Teach for America: The Hidden Curriculum of Liberal Do-Gooders

If you’re into left-wing polemic, the entire issue is quite good, and plenty of it is available on-line gratis.

13 Thoughts on this Post

  1. You wrote an excellent summary of what passes for educational reform. I found the passage concerning the failure of Teach for Awhile, er America, to examine the big picture questions to be especially evocative and chilling.

    The expectations of appropriate methods of instruction are quite varied depending upon the socio-economic status of their students. Students at the International School of Minnesota in Eden Prairie or St. Anne, St. Anne’s Belfield in Charlottesville, VA or Sidwell Friends School in D.C. have a much different curriculum and assessments than the children of the Bronx, or for that matter the public school children of the middle American towns which have suffered from the effects of globalization and deindustrialization.

    Taking the long view of what passes for “liberalism,” both in terms of personnel and ideology, the prospects of alleviating inequality in the economic and educational realms looks bleak.

  2. Andrew, this is a nicely written piece but I hate to say that you haven’t really broken any new ground here. Jack Schneider has written about this issue fairly extensively in his new book “Excellence For All” and David Labaree’s article “Teach for America and Teacher Ed: Heads they win, tails we lose” and Diane Ravitch’s review of “Waiting for Superman” in the New York Times. Still, I’m glad that you article might raise the visibility of this sorely under-covered and misunderstood issue.

  3. LD: I was thinking specifically of you when I posted this here.

    Brian: Unfortunately I agree with your bleak assessment.

    Anon: I wasn’t trying to do anything new, necessarily. Rather, I was trying to bring a critical analysis of TFA to a new audience. And from the response the article is getting, I think I was successful in achieving that. Thanks for reading.

  4. Andrew,

    Of course I’m with you nearly every step of the way on this piece. I especially liked this line: “TFA is, at best, another chimerical attempt in a long history of chimerical attempts to sell educational reform as a solution to class inequality.”

    Although I agree with your overall thrust (i.e. criticism of Teach for America, Kopp, Ravitch’s criticisms of recent reform, etc.), I wonder if you are perhaps being too hard on the general category of “liberal”? I’m thinking in particular of the beginning of paragraph two, where you cite “liberals of the education reform movement.”

    Couldn’t an old-school teacher’s union type take some offense at this? If that’s your intent, do they need pricking? It seems to me that this article is, in part, about defending unions and unionism.

    I think what you really mean in the quote above is neoliberal. I say this because you move in that direction in the bottom of the piece.

    Even if one takes a Marxian theoretical position on the category of “liberal,” in the interests of damage control isn’t the old-school education liberalism, of say the early 1970s, preferable to what the neoliberals (Kopp, Rhee, TFA enthusiasts, etc.) are giving us?

    Also, what of the more positive reading of the Coleman Report of 1966—that social and economic inequalities must be addressed to help equalize educational outcomes? This is a reading supplied by Ravitch in *The Death and Life of the Great American School System*. Even “Professor Wikipedia” references that interpretation: “A more precise reading of the Coleman Report is that student background and socioeconomic status are much more important in determining educational outcomes than are measured differences in school resources (i.e. per pupil spending).[4]”

    By citing that reading in the article you could’ve provided a “little errors in the beginning” aspect to the actions of some “liberals”—how neoliberalism, and TFA, grew out of education reform gone wrong. The optimistic reading buttresses one of your later points: “This comes as no surprise to anyone with the faintest grasp of the tight correlation between economic and educational inequality… .”

    Or do you feel the need tweak liberalism, in all its late 20th-century manifestations, to call attention to the notion of education reform as the chimera of class inequality?

    In the end, to paraphrase you, I see Kopp as as a parody of the neoliberal do-gooder. She has lost sight of liberal ideals because she is totally entranced by anti-union ideology and market means. This is the peril of every neoliberal.

    I say all of this in the spirit of togetherness and charity because I agree with your overall critique.

    – TL

  5. Andrew, it is nice to be remembered. I’m planning a reply to your article. Gives me something interesting to think about. Thanks!

  6. Last thing (until Andrew replies): Despite my comments, I do appreciate the fact that this article is bringing these criticisms to a new audience. The word on this crap must be spread far and wide. – TL

  7. I share Tim’s concern about the rather blunt if not indiscriminate use of the term “liberal,” which, with Alan Ryan, and with respect to liberal theories or philosophies of education, I take to embrace thinkers as varied as John Dewey and Bertrand Russell and, as such, should not be used in a purely pejorative sense.

  8. Andrew, I was going to post my response here, but decided that it is too anecdotal/personal, and put it on my own blog.


    Thanks again for the jolt to my brain. Merry Christmas!

  9. This is all well and good. But, may I be so blunt to state, this is why you are comfortable at the university level. Anyone can analyze a movement started by others. What is your solution? Stating your opinion in an opt ed piece does nothing to solve the plight of thousands of under-privileged American students.

  10. LD: I’ll respond to you at your blog.

    Tim (and Patrick): You make a really good point regarding my use of the term “liberal.” I guess I’m lumping a bit here–apropos Ben’s new post. Many of our most interesting debates are about terminology, right? Remember the months long debate we had about a year ago on the meaning of neoliberalism? So even that more specific term is not precise enough for many people. All of these political terms, I think, operate as floating signifiers, and I think the more someone is attached to a term the more that person would be inclined to disagree with how a lumper would use the term. You are attached to the term liberal, it seems to me, in the ways that I am attached to the term Marxist. I would be critical of what I considered poor usage of the term Marxism. On the other hand, I have no particular attachment to the term liberal, and thus am fine with using it in the way that I did in this article. That said, I don’t think I lump all liberals together in pejorative fashion. Take for instance the passage you quote: “liberals of the education reform movement.” This implies just those liberals of the reform movement, not all liberals, certainly not teacher union liberals.

    Good points regarding the Coleman Report. But I would say that the effects, or the reception, of the Coleman Report far outweigh the exact meaning in terms of importance. And the effects were to help dismantle dreams of educational resource distribution and to empower the ill effects of suburbanization, white flight, etc…

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