The view from inside Teach for America

November 23, 2010

Eric Maroney recounts an encounter with the school "reform" movement.

WHEN I received an invitation to a Teach for America (TFA) benefit dinner, I thought, "Me? Really? They must have the wrong guy."

I, a Teach for America corps member, have a reputation for openly criticizing the organization's version of "school reform" and staunchly supporting teachers' unions--not to mention being an out-of-the-closet Marxist. Still, I'm curious, and so I respond with my RSVP.

The day of the benefit dinner arrives. I've asked a colleague to cover my last period class during dismissal because, although our contract has our day ending at 3:30 p.m., it's not infrequent that we're monitoring students until almost 4 p.m.

I run out of the building, while juggling a plastic crate full of papers to be graded and ease myself behind the wheel of my Hyundai. Let's say it's from all the squats at the gym, but my suit pants are a little more than snug. I've got to hold my breath as I reach for the seatbelt and shift the car into drive.

An hour passes, and I find myself in Greenwich, Conn.--ranked number one in Money magazine's "Biggest Earner" category. I pull up to the Hyatt Regency and sandwich my car between an Audi Quattro and a Benz. Inside the lobby, giant red vases holding dried shoots of bamboo are backlit with red bulbs. Hotel workers are busy erecting open bar stations for the cocktail hour. I find the staffer who invited me and check in.

My mission, I'm told, is to smile and make nice with the donors and potential donors. I can do this, I think, if I set aside just about all sense of dignity and self-respect. Although I believe TFA is a driving force in the demise of public education, there are some well-meaning staffers and TFA teachers, I reason.

My reasoning pacifies me, and I resolve to think of the whole episode as a sort of social science experiment. That is, until I turn the corner into the board member's lounge where I've been instructed to wait and find myself face-to-face with a nightmare more ungodly than hell itself: Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

I gasp, almost busting the button on my too-tight suit pants. She's hunched over a laptop seemingly oblivious to the room that buzzes around her. I excuse myself, send a quick text message to a colleague to help regain composure, then quickly slip my phone back into my jacket pocket.

We TFA teachers have been instructed to keep our cell phones out of sight in the spirit of professionalism. The message reads: "Rhee is here. In the flesh. Hold me back!"

I'd like to say that I re-enter the lounge, saunter across the room and rip into her for bad-mouthing the profession and helping to turn kids into test scores. I definitely can think of more than one friend who would have, but I wasn't ready for that.

AS AN activist, I've always found it true that whatever comes from the podium does not necessarily represent the opinions of all in attendance. Sometimes the crowd can be more radical than the organizers, so I hold out hope and work my way around the hotel lobby.

I shake hands with mayors, superintendents, wealthy philanthropists and even speak with the wife of a state senator. Later, when Rhee commands the room with an impassioned speech about "accountability," the urgency of removing lousy teachers from the classroom in the name of equality and defeating the achievement gap, I remember these conversations.

The donors and potential donors were more candid about the real reasons for Rhee's brand of school reform.

Here's what they say: Two chaps chat at the urinal, complaining that public education is insufficient when it comes to producing quality employees. "I've got to waste my time training workers in basic skills." (So sorry I'm unable to supply you with profit-maximizing drones.)

A tall gent, who resembles Abe Lincoln but without all the hair, explains that he invests financial support in local charter schools because that is where he can recruit entry-level talent. (You heard it from the horse's mouth: skim off the cream of the talent and send them to the charters. We don't need to waste our money funding public education for all.)

A hedge fund manager wants to know how I think teachers should be evaluated, and what I think is the best way for him to invest money in the K-12 market. (This one speaks for itself.)

For all the talk of "equality" and "justice," the individuals at the helm of the reform movement are ruling-class cretins, concerned with creating an education system that is cheap to maintain and produces profit-maximizing entry-level workers. In this model, the students most affected by disability, language barriers, poverty and the achievement gap are sure to be left behind.

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