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THE LITTLE REFORM THAT DOESN’T! Teach for America doesn’t work, the Post said–as it hailed Teach for America! // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 9, 2008

The role of the fairy tale: For the record, we favor appointing “caretakers” to vacant senate posts, then letting real candidates battle it out in future special elections. Nor do we have any negative views about Caroline Kennedy at all. As far as we know, Kennedy has always conducted herself like a good and constructive person.

But in today’s Post, Ruth Marcus favors appointing Kennedy to Hillary Clinton’s senate seat. And uh-oh! Once again, a puzzling framework is invoked as Marcus describes her approach to this question. It’s much as we’ve told you in the past: At the upper end of your mainstream “press corps,” pundits often seem to live inside a fictional realm:

MARCUS (12/9/08): What really draws me to the notion of Caroline as senator, though, is the modern-fairy-tale quality of it all. Like many women my age—I'm a few months younger than she—Caroline has always been part of my consciousness: The lucky little girl with a pony and an impossibly handsome father. The stoic little girl holding her mother's hand at her father's funeral. The sheltered girl, whisked away from a still-grieving country by a mother trying to shield her from prying eyes.

In this fairy tale, Caroline is our tragic national princess. She is not locked away in a tower but chooses, for the most part, to closet herself there. Her mother dies, too young. Her impossibly handsome brother crashes his plane, killing himself, his wife and his sister-in-law. She is the last survivor of her immediate family; she reveals herself only in the measured doses of a person who has always been, will always be, in the public eye.

Then, deciding that Obama is the first candidate with the inspirational appeal of her father, she chooses to abandon her previous, above-it-all detachment from the hurly-burly of politics.

I know it's an emotional—dare I say "girly"?—reaction. But what a fitting coda to this modern fairy tale to have the little princess grow up to be a senator.

“Coda” means ending. Marcus has therefore gone on record: She’s hoping for a happy ending to a fairy tale.

Endlessly, the world is a novel for these elites—a pleasing story, a fiction, tale. (Two paragraphs earlier, Marcus notes this: “There are any number of intriguing subplots at work here.”) Indeed, when Marcus briefly tries to “reason,” this is the pap we get served:

MARCUS: [I]t would be silly to imagine that every senator or other person in high office has paid his—or her—political dues. A big bundle of cash—see, for example, Jon Corzine, former Goldman Sachs chairman, former senator from New Jersey, now New Jersey governor—is helpful for vaulting your way over the drudgery of doing time on the state Senate subcommittee on pensions. Ditto other forms of celebrity—see, as an example, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Before getting all huffy about Caroline Kennedy's qualifications for the job, let's take a breath and remember Jesse Ventura and Sonny Bono.

Indeed, it's not a bad idea to have some senators who bring different experience to the chamber. Corzine's financial acumen, for instance, helped make him an impressive senator; it's too bad he's not there now as Congress wrestles with the financial crisis. Kennedy would bring to the table a serious understanding of the Constitution—she's written a book on the subject—and an expertise on education reform. She hasn't exactly been, to use the dangerous phrase of the woman she might replace, having teas and baking cookies.

Is Kennedy being helped by her celebrity? Yes, she is, Marcus says—but others have been helped by celebrity too! Continuing to “reason” in this manner, Marcus notes that Kennedy has written a book (few New Yorkers have ever done that!) and she says that the potential solon possesses “expertise on education reform.” In fact, Kennedy has co-written a pair of books—and we’ll guess that her “expertise on education reform” is exceedingly thin. But this is the way modern pundits will “reason” in support of preferred “fairy tales.”

Ruth Marcus seems like a nice person herself. She also seems like a deeply-unconscious palace dweller. Inside the palace, life remains fine. Pundits live for riding to hounds, and for the dance—and for preferred, pretty tales.

The little reform that doesn’t: On the front page of Saturday’s Post, Megan Greenwell penned a long piece (1380 words) about the Teach for America program. One paragraph struck us as very important. It was paragraph 12 in her long report—out of 27 in all:

GREENWELL (12/7/08): Research into Teach for America's effectiveness has been inconclusive, but at least three major studies in the past several years indicate that students taught by its teachers score significantly lower on standardized tests than do their peers. A small handful of other studies, and the organization's own research, contradict that claim.

Say what? “[A]t least three major studies in the past several years indicate that students taught by [Teach for America] teachers score significantly lower?” Greenwell said this research isn’t conclusive. But we thought that paragraph (paragraph 12) was remarkable—really quite striking.

Why did we find that passage so striking? Because of the way the Washington Post—and the upper-class press corps generally—loves pimping Teach for America. Indeed, someone should quickly introduce Greenwell to her paper’s editorial board! Just two days before her piece appeared, the board produced this high-minded editorial; the editors begged Obama to “opt for boldness”—for bold “reform”— in selecting his Secretary of Education. And in the mahoganied world of our upper-end press corps, “educational reform” almost always means Teach for America! The Post didn’t even feel the need to explain what TFA is, or why it’s a useful “reform:”

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (12/5/08): The choice of Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond to head [Obama’s] education policy transition group, along with speculation that she is a candidate for secretary or deputy secretary, is not reassuring to those in the reform movement. Ms. Darling-Hammond has been more critical than supportive of the No Child Left Behind law, dislikes linking teacher pay to test scores and is no fan of Teach for America. It would be a mistake to retreat from the accountability that No Child Left Behind has brought in improving learning and narrowing the achievement gap for minority students. And the next secretary should encourage the kind of innovation and entrepreneurship typified by Teach for America's success in attracting top college graduates to inner-city schools.

In that passage, the Post listed three markers of “reform;” TFA was one of the three, and it was quickly pimped again. But then, David Brooks had promoted the same connection—TFA means reform!—in the New York Times that same morning:

BROOKS (9/5/08): There is only one education secretary, and if you hang around these circles, the air is thick with speculation, anticipation, anxiety, hope and misinformation. Every day, new rumors are circulated and new front-runners declared. It's kind of like being in a Trollope novel as Lord So-and-So figures out to whom he's going to propose.

You can measure the anxiety in the reformist camp by the level of nervous phone chatter each morning. Weeks ago, Obama announced that Darling-Hammond would lead his transition team and reformist cellphones around the country lit up. Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford, is a sharp critic of Teach for America and promotes weaker reforms.

Brooks offered only one marker of “[strong] reform.” And sure enough—it was TFA! When Greenwell sits down with her newspaper’s board, maybe Brooks can audit the course.

Endlessly, Teach for America gets ballyhooed by a largely know-nothing, upper-end press corps. For that reason, we thought that one paragraph—paragraph 12—was striking in Greenwell’s piece. But Greenwell’s piece was not an attempt to warn that TFA may be ineffective “reform.” Quite the contrary: In its basic format, Greenwell’s piece was the latest attempt to spread the good news about TFA’s “success!”

Greenwell does deserve lots of credit for including that one lonely paragraph. But when Teach for America appears on page one, its treatment—by law—must be upbeat. In fact, Greenwell was writing about TFA’s latest triumph—about the way a tough economy has encouraged even more college grads from the very best schools to join the program’s ranks. Within that framework, here is the longer passage in which Greenwell explains that this ballyhooed reform doesn’t quite seem to work:

GREENWELL: The program's success in attracting top talent such as [Georgetown senior Olubukola] Bamigboye has not silenced its critics in the world of education, many of whom say teachers need more than a summer's worth of preparation before taking jobs in inner-city schools. Lorri Harte, a 20-year teacher and administrator in New York City who writes a blog called Debunk TFA, argues that placing the least-experienced teachers with the highest-risk children is a potentially harmful combination.

"Teaching is a job where you get better as you go along, so for the first two years, people are generally not good teachers," Harte said. "The public relations blitz for the program does not address the real problems in education.”

Research into Teach for America's effectiveness has been inconclusive, but at least three major studies in the past several years indicate that students taught by its teachers score significantly lower on standardized tests than do their peers. A small handful of other studies, and the organization's own research, contradict that claim.

The latest spike in applications is only the most recent high point for the program...

The program doesn’t seem to work. But so what? Bamigboye is still described as “top talent”—even though the evidence suggests that she won’t perform like “top talent” during her two years in the program. (Meanwhile, in a weird construction, Greenwell notes that TFA’s success in attracting such college students “hasn’t silenced its critics.”) It’s the law! By the rules of the game, the fact that even more elite grads are signing up simply has to represent another “high point for the program!”

Readers, even more of our brightest grads will be failing to help low-income students! It takes a deeply disordered world view to keep churning such upbeat narratives about a “reform” that doesn’t seem to work. Teach for America doesn’t work. But long live Teach for America!

Greenwell deserves a lot of credit for including paragraph 12. But nothing seems to stop the pimping of The Little Reform That Doesn’t. What could be driving such puzzling work—the insistence on such upbeat frameworks?

Could it be Satan? the Church Lady asked. Tomorrow, we’ll suggest a different possible answer, after reviewing this borderline comical piece about Obama’s quite-elite helpers.