To the Editor:
I found Ann Cook’s Commentary on Teach For America (“Disillusionment and Noblesse Oblige,’' Commentary, April 8, 1992) disconcerting, yet challenging. Disconcerting because her attack is not straight forward but an attack by innuendo and slur; challenging because it places T.F.A. in the center ring of trying to create a viable model of teacher training that will elevate teaching status and improve the quality of teachers.
She begins by claiming that she is not going to dwell on some major criticisms of T.F.A. But she does clearly state those criticisms and mentions them as though they are a matter of fact. Her first attack is a claim that T.F.A. teachers are untrained and yet placed to teach “those whose previous schooling has failed them most completely.’' Does it not occur to Ms. Cook that maybe “those whose previous schooling has failed them most completely’’ need something different? To continue what is perpetuates a pedagogy of the oppressed.
She is wrong, moreover, when she states that these T.F.A. teachers are untrained. Not only do they have an excellent general college education, which is a prerequisite for the high-quality teachers we so desperately need, they are also trained intensively prior to teaching and are continuously trained throughout their two-year commitment.
Ms. Cook’s second contention (or insinuation) is that T.F.A. keeps education “thought of as a charitable, rather than a professional, activity.’' I heard Jonathan Kozol support this same idea the other night in a speech at Loyola University. The facts do not bear this out. First-year corps members (what T.F.A. teachears are called) earn the salary of first-year teachers in whatever school district they teach. This comes to approximately $20,000 a year in my district here in New Orleans. Idealism is certainly an integral part of a corps member’s commitment. Charity is not the issue.
T.F.A. is not responsible for low teacher salaries. Society is. But I guarantee you that in the years to come whether these T.F.A. people stay in education or move into the corporate/executive world, they will not only view teachers with more respect but they may lead the charge to have teachers paid professional salaries.
Ms. Cook rues the day these T.F.A. graduates may be viewed as “experts’’ in educational policymaking. I long for the day when their voices will be heard in educational circles, board rooms, state houses, and the halls of Congress. It makes far more sense having people speak out about American education who have had first-hand experience with the classroom situation than those who are far removed and have never been touched by the educational morass.
Ms. Cook raises the issue of the disillusioned T.F.A. participants. Will not their frustration and disappointment lead to the advocacy of the end to public education? I do not agree that destruction follows disillusionment. I do believe that public education, particularly urban public education, as we know it today, will not exist in the near future. We are in the midst of change even now. Bureaucratic education is finally under attack. A broader, more responsive vision of education is emerging. The disillusioned as well as the successful T.F.A. teacher can, should, and will have a voice in this change.
Ms. Cook attacks T.F.A. because of the background of the corps members--"the best and the brightest of our college graduates, the future doctors, lawyers and public figures, individuals whose elementary- and secondary-school experiences most often demonstrate the power of privilege as a determinant of educational success ... the ultimate form of noblesse oblige.’' I do not wish to engage in an argument over birth rights or privileges, nor do I succumb to an argument of guilt. These young teachers are not choosing a two-year honeymoon cruise; they are dedicating two years of their lives to the development and improvement of a critical American institution--the school.
I contend that whether they stay two years or 10 years or 30 years the majority will walk away with a sense of compassion and understanding for those whom they have served. The T.F.A. corps member will truly appreciate the value and potential of our many citizens trapped in the jaws of poverty.
I applaud these young teachers as I applaud all teachers in America. Ours is a most difficult life profession. We do not need people trying to make us feel guilty. We need people to join us in our quest for true justice in America. We need people to join us in our struggle to create an equitable, responsive, meaningful educational experience for every child in America. Teach For America is a move in this direction.
Robert M. Ferris
New Orleans Free School
New Orleans, La.
The author has served as a faculty member for the T.F.A. Summer Training Institute and as a resource group leader for Teach For America.
To the Editor:
The “profile’’ of the Colorado school-board member, William M. Soult (“Seven Days a Week,’' School Boards Special Report, April 29, 1992), describes with eloquence one of the major problems today’s boards create for today’s administrators.
This board member has confused his role with that of the superintendent. His presence at the teachers'-union meeting, breakfast with the administrators, and direct calls to principals foil any attempt to maintain an appropriate line for communications. This makes the superintendent’s job a horror.
Here we have two persons doing the superintendent’s job. One, a certified, trained educator; the other, an elected politician. Clearly, one of them is unnecessary.
Mark E. Beauvais
Superintendent of Schools
To the Editor:
“Beyond the Verbal Confusion Over ‘Tests’ '' (Commentary, April 29, 1992) was another symptom of the silliness of our educational establishment’s response to the public’s demand for accountability. The wordplay with “assessments’’ and “tests’’ was specious and desultory. The cliches about “paradigm shifts,’' “factory models,’' “community-of-learners models,’' “greedy test publishers,’' etc., were the usual signs that an academic was attempting rhetoric where Kant’s “practical reason’’ had atrophied.
Does Ruth Mitchell really believe that our public will permit us to avoid normative data? Ford, çŸíŸ, and Chrysler pointed for years to their stellar “process’’ achievements, but their stockholders looked to the “profit product’’ to place a value on their investment. We may indeed profit from “performance assessments’’ internally as indicators of process performance, but our public wants normative (read comparative) data.
I suggest you consider a series on Houston’s Wesley Elementary School, as featured recently on the ABC News program “Prime Time Live.’' For more than a decade Wesley has been an extensive user of normative data to drive curriculum and instruction decisions. Repeatedly throughout ABC’s presentation we saw Wesley parents heavily involved, saw the strong support of the local teachers, and saw attention paid to accelerated learning with primary students; all we would like to see in any school no matter how evaluated.
Since Wesley, despite having a 99 percent poverty enrollment, consistently scored at or near the top of all Houston elementary schools on achievement tests, one would have expected strong administrative curiosity, support, and attempts to replicate the program in other schools. What we saw, however, was attempted substitution of “process’’ evaluation, accusations of cheating on achievement tests, unannounced classroom inspections to find evidence of cheating, deprivation of funds, and, despite literally thousands of visitors from other schools, no replication in the Houston school district.
It is this inertia and hostility that have deprived the public educational community of public support when we need it most. Ms. Mitchell’s essay (and your simplistic graphic) misses the political point: We will have normative data for a long time yet--because our public demands it.
Frank C. Glenn
A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 1992 edition of Education Week as Letters To the Editor