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December 13, 2008


I don't know what happened to the TFA alum who was "on track to become the youngest graduate ever of Harvard's National Institute for Urban School Leaders." But Michelle Rhee earned a master's degree in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. And we know how that story ended . . .

As a Teach For America alumnus, I must say that the concern Campbell raises (and the author of this blog supports) was central to my struggle to come to terms with the organization as I first considered it during my senior year of college. The "no excuses" philosophy in the classroom has the potential to create moral hazard: if, in fact, the harmful effects of poverty are mere excuses, then there is no social incentive to work against or eradicate poverty. This has far-reaching implications not just for education, but also for public health, neighborhood safety and cohesiveness, workers' rights, and so forth.

But the NewsHour's "shell-shocked" interviewees belie such a reductive analysis: through their difficult experiences in the classroom, the leaders of our generation will know the inequity of our country's education system, will know the countless hours needed to make good on a "no excuses" philosophy, and will NOT rest until the difficulties faced, by children and educators alike, are ameliorated. They won't stand pat on poverty because their poor students did well; they'll act precisely because their poor students did well, but it took monumental effort to make it happen, and THAT'S not fair. Whatever their eventual career trajectory, Teach For America alumni feel a life-long commitment to alleviate poverty, not that poverty is just another excuse. With this much talent pushing for change, in the long run, standard of living will be raised along with test scores. (And we cannot seriously entertain the idea that poverty alleviation is anything but a long-run proposition.)

Meanwhile, in the short run, those young, ambitious, single, childless twenty-somethings are making a difference in the classroom. And while, as the son of two life-long educators, I recognize the benefits of careerist professional development in education, as an economist, I cannot ignore the fact that there seems to be little difference between a ten-year veteran teacher and a thirty-year veteran teacher in terms of instructional effectiveness, measured by student achievement data. Perhaps a more cogent line of criticism against Teach For America would be that it does not retain its young, talented teachers for longer, not that it does not retain them for life. My own experience in the classroom taught me that I still had a ton to learn after three years, but I was no more likely to learn it in the next 27 years than I was to learn it in the next 7. Or perhaps even the next 3.

Now, just over 3 years separates from my undergraduate days. I am still young, ambitious, single, and childless; I still meet the criteria for having enough time to devote to a "no excuses" philosophy. I do not plan on meeting all these criteria for the rest of my life, but I do know I was more effective as a teacher because I did. Talking with my veteran colleagues, this was all out on the table: I did what I did for all those hours because I needed to make up for lacking experience, and because I could - nobody was waiting for me at home. So with all due respect and great thanks to several of my own great teachers, who among them share centuries of experience, what is wrong with the proposition that teaching, like other instances of service to one's country, is best done by the young and unattached?

Well said, Bill Strom. I hope you have passed along your concerns about TFA's "no excuses" philosophy to Wendy Kopp.

I take some issue, however, with your observation that veteran teachers past a certain point are no more effective instructionally based on student achievement data, meaning, I assume, student test scores. One of Campbell's fundamental criticisms is that much of the harder work done by "successful" TFA teachers is probably teaching to the test, or as Campbell put it in his first essay, identifying "... the discrete skills and tasks that were going to be tested in the state test and then [making] sure that her students were proficient in these areas."

Both Campbell and I believe that there's a big difference between "test preparation and education." That's been one of my fundamental disagreements with the approach your fellow TFA alum, Michelle Rhee, has taken as Chancellor of DC schools to improve the system.

One last note. It took me well past my tenth year of teaching to really begin to feel comfortable in the classroom. That's when I started to work smarter, not harder. That's when at long last I started seeing things from the perspective of my students rather than the material they were supposed to learn.

Teach For America activists say poor schools and bad teachers cause the achievement gap not bad habits or inequality.

Discounting the notion of individual responsibility, they want us to give TFA alumni top jobs in our urban schools, and to transfer kids from neighborhood schools to the charters they operate, so they can eliminate job security for teachers and eradicate any influence we have over school-district policies.

The idea that teachers are opponents rather than advocates of education is a new one in our country. It derives from the time when Ms. Wendy Kopp first started TFA and decided, from her Princeton perch and without a day in the classroom, that inexperienced teachers were inherently better than experienced ones.

Ms. Kopp's circle in Washington D.C., Houston, New York and elsewhere are launching an anti-American Ivy League class war on the very same teachers who serve our nation's toughest schools.

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The cut worm forgives the plow.

I find life an exciting business,The point is succinctness of expression.

graduate school, as if she hasn't learned by now that

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Cons - There have been some complaints by people who claim that the shoe can be destroyed easily. This is seen after vigorous activity.

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