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Tennessee embraces a cruel hoax on poor and urban children

Bill Smith, Community Voices Columnist • Feb 24, 2019 at 12:00 AM

Teach for America recruits college graduates in non-education majors from prestigious universities (one-fifth of them from Harvard), trains them for five weeks, and then places them in teaching positions in low income schools. The required classroom commitment is two years, but about one-third of TFA participants stay longer. Most, however, use the experience to enhance their resumes for graduate or professional studies or as a springboard to lucrative positions in other fields.

Three politically popular but false premises undergird the TFA approach: that our public schools are failing miserably, that educators are the problem, and that it’s time for smarter people (i.e., non-educators) to take control. It should surprise no one that TFA has close ties to the influential and well-funded groups trying to dismantle public education.

TFA claims its goals are to “make educational equity a reality” and prepare recruits for educational leadership roles. It achieves neither of these aims.

TFA is a cruel hoax for the poor urban and rural children it purports to serve. No one is prepared to teach after a five-week orientation, and many past TFA recruits have admitted as much. One Harvard-educated participant described “floundering” in the classroom and said she begged for help from traditionally trained teachers, the very people TFA told her were the real problem with public education.

Michelle Rhee is perhaps TFA’s most famous recruit. Rhee, a Cornell graduate with a degree in government, confessed that she was once so frustrated by her inability to manage student behavior that she put tape over children’s mouths to keep them from talking. When she removed the tape, the children’s lips bled, and many of them cried.

Rhee taught for three years in Baltimore, obtained a master’s of public policy from Harvard, and in 1997 founded The New Teacher Project, a nonprofit that purported to prepare exemplary teachers for urban schools. Apparently on the basis of her self-declared expertise as a teacher educator, she was hired in 2007 by the Washington, D.C., mayor as chancellor of its school system, despite never having been a school administrator at any level.

Rhee sought to eliminate tenure in D.C. and fired large numbers of teachers each year. After hiring over 500 teachers in the spring and summer of 2009, she laid off 266 educators that fall, citing budget problems. Rhee said she made these personnel decisions to improve academic performance, but she dismissed the principal at her children’s elementary school, one of D.C.’s highest performing schools, without providing a reason.

Rhee resigned her position in 2010 amid widespread suspicions of cheating on tests, low system morale, and abysmally poor ratings from multiple stakeholder groups, especially African-American parents. She then formed the organization StudentsFirst and became a nationally recognized school voucher advocate, adviser to elected officials, public speaker and television and radio guest. In 2016, she met with President-elect Trump and was rumored to be his choice for secretary of education.

Kevin Huffman (who was once married to Michelle Rhee) is perhaps the second most famous TFA recruit. After graduating from Swarthmore with a B.A. in English literature, Huffman taught first and second grade bilingual students in Houston for two years. He then attained a law degree from NYU and practiced the profession for two years before returning to TFA, where he worked in a variety of administrative roles for more than a decade. In 2011, Gov. Bill Haslam appointed Huffman commissioner of education, making him the first TFA participant to head a state education agency.

Huffman stirred considerable controversy as commissioner. He more than doubled the number of Tennessee charter schools, and when the Nashville school board refused to authorize a charter, Huffman attempted to withhold $3.4 million in funding from the system. In 2013, over 60 school superintendents signed and sent a petition to Haslam complaining that Huffman had “no interest in a dialogue” with them and was responsible for low morale in Tennessee schools. They said he regarded Tennessee’s educators as “impediments to school improvement rather than partners.”

Huffman left the commissioner’s position in 2015 and is now a nationally recognized writer, speaker and adviser on the subject of educational reform.

Penny Schwinn, Gov. Bill Lee’s recent appointee as commissioner of education, is a 2004 California-Berkeley graduate and TFA participant. To her credit, she attained a master’s in teaching degree after entering the classroom and later a Ph.D. in educational policy. However, her administrative behavior over the years, especially regarding strategies for improving struggling schools, has adhered far more closely to the TFA philosophy than to established research.

Two aspects of her work history are especially concerning. One, she doesn’t stay anywhere very long, leading to speculation she is either always seeking a more high-powered position than the one she has, or she avoids staying anywhere long enough to be accountable for her actions. Two, like Rhee and Huffman, she has been very controversial.

After teaching three years in Baltimore and Los Angeles, Schwinn founded a charter school in Sacramento, California, and served as its principal. In 2013, she was elected to the Sacramento School Board with the support of Kevin Johnson, the mayor at the time and Michelle Rhee’s husband. She left that position after one year to become the district’s assistant superintendent and then moved to Delaware in 2014 as the state’s chief of accountability. Texas hired her as its education agency’s deputy commissioner of academics in 2016.

In Delaware, she implemented a “Priority Schools” program that targeted schools with low test scores and called for firing their administrators and half their teachers. Schwinn informed one district in a letter that two of its principals could not be retained because of the schools’ academic performance, even though a comprehensive evaluation indicated strong principal ratings and substantial improvement in both schools. Critics questioned Schwinn’s authority to override local officials in such personnel decisions, calling it an overreach and illegal abuse of power, and parents and teachers bemoaned the lack of stability in their schools because of these firings.

Schwinn also garnered negative attention when her husband received a leadership position partially funded by the Delaware Department of Education shortly after she began work there. Critics called it a clear conflict of interest.

In Texas, Schwinn spearheaded a $4.4 million no-bid contract to a company headed by a professional acquaintance (and TFA alumnus) in violation of numerous procurement guidelines. Texas’ special education chief blew the whistle and was fired the next day. The contract was canceled, but the state lost over $2 million. In addition, it appears confidential information about special education students may have been released to the subcontractor without parents’ permission.

In the midst of this controversy, Schwinn applied to be the Massachusetts commissioner of education and was one of three finalists. However, she did not receive any votes from the 11-member State Board of Education. If only our governor had exhibited similar judgment.

Schwinn is clearly talented and determined; however, she possesses the same hubris and single-mindedness exhibited by Rhee and Huffman, a belief that they alone understand education and how to improve it. They are the most dangerous of leaders: They know just enough to think they know everything but not enough to realize how little they really know.

Rhee, Huffman, and Schwinn are poster children for everything that is wrong with the idea that educational leaders should come from outside the field of education. With all of the available evidence, you’d think that a smart businessman like Lee would be able to see that.

Dr. Bill Smith of Johnson City is a public school advocate and retired educator.

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