Many educational professors and theorists enjoy attacking Teach for America and similar programs. Recently, Jim Horn took over the soapbox of Change.org to publish a two-part attack on Teach for America. This attack, which frequently devolves into questionable rhetoric, deserves a rebuttal from a less involved party. Clearly, the social entrepreneurs which Jim so critically attacks are not in a good position to provide this, but Jim also isn’t operating from a neutral perspective either. As a member of the educational elite, he clearly has a vested interest in increasingly rigorous teacher training. I offer the following as an outsider, hoping that my inexperience also insulates me from the antiquated self-preserving rhetoric which many educators have adopted.

The most troubling part of Jim’s attack is how he continually strikes out against the actual teachers for America. His tone is clearly derogatory, and sadly strays dangerously close to an older man attacking younger generations out of self-preservation. In many places, he attacks the intelligence and readiness of the volunteers.

This year TFA has an operating budget in excess of $100 million, net assets of over $120 million, and a work force of over 6,000 bright, energetic, and, yes, clueless recruits engaged in on-the-job training in some of America’s most desperately-poor, low-achieving schools, where children, by the way, need most of all (beyond the need to end their poverty) the most highly qualified, experienced teachers with deep knowledge of the subjects they teach and knowledge of how to teach those subjects.

What exactly are these highly educated and intelligent recruits clueless about? Sure, a certain part of the TFA philosophy relies upon tossing recruits into the “deep end” of urban poverty, but I genuinely believe this strategy can be effective. Most situations, including teaching, can be successfully mastered by an individual with a strong will, a good brain, and a healthy dose of resourcefulness. Clearly, given their backgrounds and the application process, most recruits possess these tools. It isn’t fair to argue that TFA recruits are any more clueless than other first-year teachers.

Nor does there seem to be any moral reservation or element of doubt expressed by these idealistic recent grads who would seem equally eager to sign up… And yet for all the sunny assuaging of white middle class guilt and the successful beefing up of law school resumes skimpy on service that TFA has enabled for its thousands of past and present recruits and donors, there are some dark elements of TFA that are incubated and grown by this movement.

Jim immediately concludes that recruits should experience moral reservation, and berates the recruits for not sharing his reservations. Yet, I can see no compelling reason that there should be moral reservations surrounding this. No matter the intellectual objections surrounding methodology, the moral intent is sound. One associates moral reservations with participating in war, not with volunteering to work in impoverished schools.

Throughout, Jim attempts to paint all recruits as self-serving egoists with their eyes only for the coveted law school admission and associated wealth. Given the rigorous admissions process for TFA, one can assume recruits could easily find a more cost-productive way to spend a few years of their life, if their sole goal is wealth and power. Paradoxically, he also attempts to accuse them of naively pursuing a goal of changing the world. Here, I believe he is actually the naive one. While he theorizes about ending poverty from his ivory tower, Teach for America is pursuing the significantly more achievable task of providing a passable education for impoverished students.

Beyond the attacks upon recruits, Jim also takes up a shield to defend unions and the tenure system. In short, he argues for the past, where teaching is only a viable profession after many years of (costly) education and experience.

The fact is, Teach for America fills a need. Society presently doesn’t provide teachers with adequate compensation, particularly in areas with lower tax rolls. The majority of the strong teachers migrate to suburban areas where they can be guaranteed decent salaries.

Clearly, this needs to change. I agree with Jim in that our current education funding system has significant flaws. It serves as a multiplier of poverty, instead of a leveler. However, these changes won’t come quickly or easily — the educational and political establishment are highly entrenched in the current paradigm. Eventually, I hope this will be remedied. Unfortunately, Jim seems to be just as clueless as the rest of us about how to do so. Despite his continued attacks on TFA for only addressing a symptom, he offers no concrete alternatives.

Until these issues of poverty and education can be remedied, the fact remains that urban schools need teachers. The highly trained teachers whom Jim insists are needed don’t seem to be willing to fill this void until the funding issues are resolved. Jim himself has a good, safe position at Cambridge College, which I imagine pays decently. Meanwhile, the blog host, Clay Burell, has spent years working at international schools. These examples just illustrate the fact that there is a lack of qualified teachers willing to work in urban schools today. Teach for American fills this void, by providing highly educated individuals ready to work in poor districts.

While TFA itself may be a stop-gap, I also believe it can be part of the final solution. Though many recruits will only teach for a few years, this is not entirely a bad thing. These successful individuals are clearly on their way to positions of power, in both politics and business. Hopefully, having some classroom experience will help them to be cognizant of the issues classroom teachers face. With this experience, they will be less likely to regulate ineffective solutions and more open to equitable distributions of funding. TFA is providing valuable on-the-ground experience for future leaders.

Teach for America clearly has some issues, but it is not entirely bad. The recruits are certainly not idiots, and Jim Horn would do well to aim his scorn at more deserving subjects.1 When debating educational politics, we would all do well to examine our own prejudices, whether they be towards the educational elite or business. Instead of attacking people trying to make a difference, we should all do more to make a difference ourselves.

What do you think of Teach for America? Is it a helpful partner in change or a dangerous cancer?

Spying Suit 1

You can’t change the world if you ignore it.

Among the progressive base, there seems to be this idea that corporations and society are inherently bad. This attitude, which leads to growing isolation, doesn’t help to advance progressive causes. Instead, it just stigmatizes good ideas as dangerously radical.

Make no mistake: this world isn’t perfect. Society, at all levels, is rampart with corruption, greed, and other “sins.”2 Unfortunately, the typical progressive/radical response to this is to simply abandon society. But in reality, substantive change only comes from the inside. We can’t all be Thoreau. To change society, you have to be part of it.

In a plethora of situations, I run into the conflict between ideals and practicality. It is better to build a good compromise than to ride the high horse into the sunset. Though some call it Machiavellian, I call it pragmatic. Everything should be analyzed as a cost vs. value equation. What is the cost to my moral integrity? What is the benefit to society?

The world isn’t painted in black and white, but in shades of grey. Nothing is inherently evil and nothing is inherently bad. Corporations are just a collection of people, and all people are just trying to do what they think is best.

I run into this conflict all the time, both in work and school. Sure, I don’t believe there is any point to an assignment. But that doesn’t mean I won’t do it: in the end, it’s better for me to ace a pointless class than to fail it. It’s better to accept that job at Goliath National Bank than to barely make ends meet elsewhere.

Society doesn’t give a damn about you unless you give a damn about it.

It’s fun to wear band shirts, but eventually we have to “suit up.”3

When I was younger, I thought history didn’t matter. To me, history was a dusty land filled with dates, maps, and death rates. I thought the inhabitants of this land — historians — were old, dusty people who had nothing interesting to say.

In short, I confused history with historical societies.

Right: An Aerial View of the Smithsonian

I was, and am, a person driven by change (action) and, to an unhealthy extent, power. Technology and politics, my passions, both move at a breakneck pace and are always focusing on the future. To my naive self, history was entirely antithetical to my entire philosophy.1

As one might expect, school was at fault. School taught me to memorize dates and people.2 We almost never explored the context of these events; we never delved into the legacies of the leaders beyond the most basic level. Timelines made regular appearances, as did color-coded maps. All this memorization took up time, time which would have been better spent thinking.

Naturally, given this context, I felt that history was something to be avoided like the plague.3

Now, of course, I know better.

Once I got teachers who actually understood and enjoyed history, I was able to see beyond the numbers. I discovered that history wasn't a textbook or timeline, but a story, and a damn good story at that. With this discovery, I was able to find the joy of the past.

Not to go all philosophical on you, but the past really is the present.

Society evolves, but evolution involves a lot of repetition. Each iteration is almost exactly the same as the last, with only minor differences. A knowledge of that past iteration helps you to understand the current iteration — and the differences between the two.

Understanding — truly understanding — the world (politics, society, technology, etc.) is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. Thankfully, we have the past to help us. With the wisdom of the past, we can more easily understand the present. Instead of having to draw an entirely new map of the world, we only need to draw a map of the new parts.

Almost every situation we encounter, somebody else has encountered before. Even when we can’t see them, we’re walking in someone’s footsteps. Thankfully, that someone has probably already come up with a solution for or analysis of the situation. I am continuously reminded of this, whether in my daily Googling of technical problems or my comparisons between Palin and McCarthy. When it comes down to it, history is probably the most useful subject there is.

Sadly, far too many teachers get it wrong. Though I'm sure you're not one of them, you probably know some of them. History, more than any other subject, is really easy to get wrong.4 It is far too easy to get caught in the micro-history (who fought in what battle on what date?) and forget about the macro-history (why was he fighting?), especially because the micro-history is very easy to teach and test. Given this, it is no surprise that many history teachers don't teach history.

And every time it is a tragedy. When taught as a collection of dates, history loses its spark. A bad history teacher will — guaranteed — make history dull and lifeless. In other subjects, one can get by with a poor teacher and still enjoy it. History, more than any other subject, depends strongly on the quality of the teacher. A good history teacher5 will make even the most reluctant of students sit up in their chairs, but a bad history teacher will make even (or, especially) the future-historians start texting under the table. In no other class is this true: math people will always find numbers mathematical language interesting, and some never will.6 The cost of a poor history teacher is great, but the benefits are superb: history gives students a framework to understand their world.

So please, remember to take the hi- off history.

Of course, at some point the “facts” do become important. The dates and names aren’t entirely irrelevant, especially as one wishes to progress. To talk effectively and intelligently about the ideas, one must know the facts — especially if one aims to convince others. However, the ideas are indisputably more important — without them, history is pointless. Unfortunately, the ideas are generally only seriously discussed in the upper grades of high school and college. Up until then, the bare facts hold almost exclusive domain. By the time students reach the exciting parts of history, we have built a (false) image of history as boring and pointless — in fact, many never reach those discussions simply because they assume all history is as boring as 5th grade history. Even at the unit level, history is taught in the wrong order. Most teachers start with the bare facts and only touch on the bigger ideas near the end of a lesson. This should be reversed on both the micro and macro levels, with grand ideas being taught first to build interest and discussion. Only with the themes in place should the facts be taught, to supplement and reinforce those themes, leading to continued investigation. The primary focus of history should always be the story.

think new

Right: My countdown wallpaper from Mediumjones at Smashing Magazine

What do you think the proper order of history education is? Do you think schools need to focus more on the context of history?