September 25, 2021

Mercedes Schneider: School Hasn’t Changed in 100 Years. So Saith TFA.

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Mercedes Schneider blogs about Teach for America’s pronouncements about education, schools, and what it takes to be an education leader. Reprinted with permission.

Part of the education reform narrative is that “school has not changed in the past 100 years.”

Consider this from the Teach for America (TFA) website:

School Hasn’t Changed in 100 Years

Students and families count on school to give children agency to lead and shape a better future for themselves. Yet our schools were never designed to unleash the potential of all children. Schools weren’t designed to meet the diverse needs of millions of students who rely on them today. They weren’t designed to help children facing challenges of poverty overcome those obstacles and access opportunity in a dynamic, global world. And our public school system is remarkably impervious to innovation, adaptation, and change.

TFA is the brainchild of Princeton graduate, Wendy Kopp, who wrote her undergraduate thesis on the idea. I first heard of TFA in 1991 when a college friend of mine who graduated with a degree outside of education told me that he was signing up to teach for two years in a city with a teacher shortage on a provisional certificate with TFA. It sounded fine to me, even altruistic.

Ten years later, by 2001, TFA had shifted its mission to that of cultivating its alumni to seek positions of influence, such as superintendentships, in order to influence education, including education policy. Two years of token teaching would be enough for these bright, capable leaders to advocate and produce change. Of course, this stance also leverages TFA’s power as an organization. For example, TFA alum who become superintendents can clear out a department of education and bring in other TFAers for outsized titles and cozy salaries.

For all of its marketing a need for change in the American K12 classroom, in 30 years, TFA has never made a concerted push to get its alumni to remain in the K12 classroom. As far as the classroom itself is concerned, TFA is apparently fine with manufacturing endless churn as TFAer come and go, riding on a crash course in teaching and without having earned a certificate for the first of those two years, all paid for by schools and districts (and here and here) above and beyond each TFAer a teacher’s salary. TFAers have been taught, however, that test scores are the end-all, be-all, and that their limited classroom experience (limited by time and situation) lends to envisioning themselves as education saviors who are superior to career teachers (i.e., saviors who forego saving rather quickly, but saviors, nonetheless).

But back to the “school hasn’t changed in 100 years” pitch:

That narrative is ridiculous on its face. School reflects society, and over the last 100 years, schools have become increasingly responsible for addressing (combatting? Correcting?) the ills of society. Add to that increased usage of technology; expectation that schools must administer and be graded by annual wave after wave of standardized test scores; changes in legal responsibilities for special populations and minors in general; cuts in funding, and the education reform atmosphere of school- and teacher-blaming, and not only have schools changed in 100 years; school has changed quite a bit over the last three decades since I began teaching in 1991.

Let’s go back 100 years and note a few changes in American education. My namesake finished school in New Orleans in 1923. A few observations from what I know of this time and of her experience:

  • The expected, terminal grade level was eighth grade.
  • No auxiliary services were provided, including lunch or transportation.
  • There was no such thing as any accommodation for a special population. Students not deemed “normal” could be denied admittance.
  • Schools provided no mental health services, and students who missed school due to illness were not entitled to opportunities to recoup missed work.
  • Corporal punishment was expected, endorsed, and utilized.
  • There was no “mixing of the races,” with white citizens leveraged to advantage, including in educational experience.

Is this where we are in 2021, TFA?

Of course, there was also no computerized instruction, no internet until my time in graduate school in the mid-1990s. Drills for dangers, such as atomic bombs, came decades later, and active shooter drills, even later than that.

When I attended elementary and middle school in southern Louisiana in the 1970s, there was a push for self-directed, individually-paced learning and for open classrooms. So, my experience for much of my elementary and middle school years involved kits and packets and consultation with my teachers, sometimes one-on-one, and sometimes, in small groups. This mode worked well for me but was a nightmare for students who required more structure (not to mention the “classrooms without walls” idea made for a chaotic scene when trying to keep track of students, who could easily wander from one open classroom to the next on more social missions).

Standardized testing was not the center of my own K12 educational experience, but that is certainly not true for my students in 2021-22.

When I began teaching in 1991, there was no dumping of millions of dollars annually into standardized testing, and test prep, and grading of schools and teachers using student test results. That misguided, punitive focus would come a decade later with George W. Bush’s bipartisan monster, No Child Left Behind (NCLB). According to NCLB, America should have reached that perfect 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014– seven years ago. By 2007, the NCLB party was over, and politicians did not want to touch it.

So much change.

For most of my teaching career, there was no Google Meet with simultaneous, in-person instruction. No incessant interruption (and competition) from student use of iPhones and iPods in class. No cyberbullying to contend with, and no interference of social media with the activities of the school day. No wireless availability problems in the classroom. No sophisticated cheating enabled by the internet to contend with. But these complications are a daily reality for me now.

Perhaps those who maintain that school has not changed in a century are hung up on the desk arrangement of all seats facing the teacher. Ironically, the center for Disease Control (CDC) COVID protocol requires all desks facing one way, a rather inconvenient, constrictive way to arrange a classroom for many teachers.

American public education has its challenges, but to say that the K12 classroom has been “impervious to change” over the last century is to promote a lie in order to advance oneself as the solution.

However, in promoting the lie, TFA cuts itself off at the kneees:

Since TFA has been around for three decades, in stating that “school hasn’t changed in 100 years,” TFA is admitting its own failure to impact “school” over the course of the last 30 of those 100 years.

And yet, TFA boasts $406M in end-of-year assets for 2019-20 and paid its top 10 executives a combined $3.2M.

Market-based education reform organizations like TFA suffer from the passage of time. They sell themselves as the solution, but if they retain the narrative that education hasn’t changed yet even though they have been sucking in millions over the course of 30 years in the name of change, it begs the question of why, exactly, anyone would continue to beef up their assets.

Time for a change.

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