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Update on Dewey

31 Jul

Posted below is our most recent update on Dewey.  We published it a couple weeks ago on the Oakland Local blog.  It’s not fully up to date at this point since it’s missing our most recent actions including our BBQ on Monday, 7/28.  Still it’s worth posting for our archives here and so everyone can get an idea of the ongoing nature of our work around Dewey and gentrification within OUSD.


Stopping Gentrification in OUSD:

Update from Struggle to Stop Displacement of Dewey and Privatization of Public Land

By Aram Mendoza and N. Finch

Since we last wrote about the potential development deal that would potentially displace Dewey Academy and sell off public land, we’ve witnessed an inspiring awareness and mobilization among  the OUSD community.  At each of the two relevant board meetings that happened last week, the 7-11 meeting and OUSD school board, students, educators, and community members came out to speak against the proposed development deal that would privatize public land.  Below we outline a brief update on each meeting and review the major problems of this attempt to privatize public space in Oakland.  Throughout this piece we put forth a vision of how we should approach the key issues in this process.

Specifically, we call for:

  • Public land to remain under public control; No privatization of public land.
  • Parent, staff, student, and community should decide OUSD policy.
  • The OUSD admin and the school board should become community activists and fight for taxes on property developers, corporations, and the port, rather than resorting to short-term privatization schemes.


Sign-making before we protested at a 7-11 Committee meeting.

Sign-making before we protested at a 7-11 Committee meeting.


7-11 Meeting, Community Response and Colonial Analogies


On Monday, June 23rd, the 7-11 Committee convened its third meeting in order to advise the school board on whether or not Dewey Academy should be considered “surplus property” and thereby offer it up to luxury condo developers as a saleable/leaseable parcel of land.  While OUSD so poorly promoted attendance at previous 7-11 meetings that no more than four or five community members showed up, this one had over 30 educators, students and parents from Dewey, joined by a handful of concerned community members.

The fact that educators and students were able to quickly get the word out and mobilize the community, without any outreach support from OUSD, demonstrates the strong opposition to the OUSD administration’s plans to privatize the public land that Dewey rests on.  The grouping of educators, students and community members put up signs around the room that read, “Schools Not Condos,” “Dewey is not Surplus,” “Not One Inch of Public Land for Private Developers,” and other messages that clearly took a clear stand against the administration’s move to privatize public space.

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Update and Next Steps to Rebuild Adult Ed

6 Jun

Dear supporters of Classroom Struggle and Public Education in Oakland,

We won $1 million dollars for Adult Ed! This is definitely a partial victory, and we should celebrate this, since it was direct action and leadership on the part of parents and teachers which won it. But we also need to be clear about the limitations of every victory.

Thank you all for coming out on Wednesday, 5/22. We have included a detailed overview of what happened on at the school board meeting, what our victories have been, the limitations of the vote taken on Wednesday, as well as some directions for next steps.

Adult Ed

A few key points:

  • At the May 22nd board meeting parents, teachers and students were united in fighting for a fair contract and against cuts (mainly to adult ed).
  • The board voted to maintain current funding for adult ed (due in large part to mobilizations by adult ed students and teachers as well as the outcome of the May Revise).
  • The vote guarantees 1 million in funding of adult education but does not guarantee how that funding will be spent.
  • It is still possible that cuts may happen because of “restructuring” by administrators or because school site budgets may not be able to pay the contribution that is currently required of them.
  • Going forward, adult ed students and teachers are continuing to fight to make sure the program continues as it is and expands to restore the 90% of this program that was cut 3 years ago. There is still work to be done THIS SCHOOL YEAR.

We want to learn from and build out of the May 22nd board meeting so please take the time to read the rest of this email to understand the details of this struggle and contact us with any thoughts/suggestions/questions.

What Happened?

The meeting started with a picket line and rally of hundreds of parents, teachers and students chanting “Save Adult Ed,” “Fair Contract Now” and “Not One Cut!” After 15 minutes of picketing outside, the contingent marched inside and held a spirited general assembly with speeches from parents, Adult Ed students, and teachers. Oakland’s educational community was out in strong force and electrifying what is otherwise an incredibly dull “business meeting” (to use School Board Member Jumoke Hodge’s own words.)

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GO Public Schools’ Proposal Gets an F from OUSD Teacher

21 Mar

We post a fiery letter  from an OUSD teacher who attended GO Public Schools’ event Wednesday night.  There GO and a coalition of other organizations (including SEIU 1021, Youth Together, Youth Uprising, OCO, and Education Trust-West) proposed to evaluate, fire, and hire teachers according to student test score data.  Click here for the report.  The teacher is as angry for what it leaves out as what it proposes.  A must read on a very relevant issue for Oakland, as GO and Tony Smith appear to be making a full-court press to evaluate teachers by test scores.

Dear Great Oakland Public Schools, National Council for Teacher Quality and the Oakland Effective Teaching Coalition,
These are my thoughts about your “Teacher Quality Roadmap” and your event tonight, March 20th.
You presentation was based on an analysis of exceptional, average and weak teachers.

The only brief explanation of how you determine who is an exceptional teacher, average or weak teachers was in the number of years a student’s learning increases within a school year (based on standardized test scores I imagine although this was not explicitly stated). They said that highly effective teachers can raised student achievement by 1.5 years in a single year, average teachers can raise achievement by 1 year and weak teachers raise it by less than 1 year. As a teacher, this definition of effectiveness in teaching seems ignorant at best and quite honestly, insulting.

How dare you limit the way you understand my students’ success to their numbers on an undetermined test? How dare you assess how will I invest in, am creative with, care for, discipline, instruct, evaluate, grow with, develop respect with, inspire and nurture my students with this single figure? Without any consideration of all of the factors out of my control and out of my students control? Without any assessment of all other kinds of growth that happen in my classroom, in my conversations with parents, in the after school and before school tutoring hours? These may not show up on whether the student progressed 1 year or 1.5 years.
Teach to test Cartoon 7
When my students show up to school everyday to learn even when people are getting mugged outside at 7am in the morning, even when a middle school student got shot last week walking to school, even when family members are being deported and laid off, even when their mothers are dealing with domestic violence and they fear for the lives of their baby siblings, even when because they are undocumented this district refuses to pay them the stipends that other students get, when they have childcare to do at home, when the district just decided to cut the classes that teach their parents how to help them with homework  — they are exceptional, no matter what the number they score on your rubric.

Why Teachers Should Care About the Contract: Aram Mendoza

1 Feb

This is a recent article from our newest newsletter analyzing the OEA contract struggle.  We post it here so you can access the citations and hyperlinks.  Here, Aram Mendoza analyzes the current contract negotiations of OEA and its importance for Oakland teachers and, more widely, the needs of Oakland students.  Aram also raises some very concrete tactics and next steps for individual teachers and teachers as a whole.

CTU FairContractNow

A Chicago teacher on strike last fall.

Why Teachers Should Care About the Contract

By Aram Mendoza

Oakland teachers, do we care about having a union?
Do we care about having a good contract?
What is an imposition and what should teachers do about it?

These are not rhetorical questions.

The reality is that we have been under an imposed “contract” since 2010.  What does this mean?  Simply put: Tony Smith and the OUSD school board have unilaterally, dictatorially, and undemocratically imposed terms of work upon education workers.  It means that the “last, best, and final” offer was put on the table by the OUSD district bargaining team and was NOT agreed to by the OEA bargaining team. Though this imposition was carried out in April of 2010 (which was why OEA’s last strike was in that same month), it was not the last time that Smith and the Board have imposed on education workers: last year’s “Accelerated TSA” campaign was imposed on Fremont, McClymonds, and Castlemont teachers without any public, democratic process.  More on this later.

Back to our current contract situation – we must ask: does our contract really matter?  As I’ve talked to co-workers and friends who are teachers in Oakland’s public schools I’ve come to see the total lack of information that we have in relation to our own contractual agreement with the district.

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How Chicago Teachers Got Organized to Strike

11 Dec

This article was submitted to us by a teacher friend.  She writes, “The article illustrates in a very simple way what needs to be done to have and be a union that is truly on the side of the working class. Two friends of mine that are teachers, and in the past had made a conscious decision to not be organizers, were pretty inspired by this article. I think the simpleness of the article is a big plus for people that don’t have politics in their heads 24/7.”

Here in Oakland, the lessons of the Chicago teachers are especially useful for us as OEA gears up for contract negotiations.  So if you’re interested in what Norine Gutekanst has to say here you might want to check out our Oct. 5 post with a video of Norine going in depth into the lessons of the strike.

Editors Note: This article was taken from who reposted it from Labor Notes (we were unable to find the original link, apologies).  Thanks to both parties, and our friend, for spreading the words and work of CTU.

CTU teachers on strike. Note their signs raising working class wide demands calling for unity between teachers, parents, and students.

CTU teachers on strike. Note their signs raising working class wide demands calling for unity between teachers, parents, and students which the teacher organizers made real by fighting against school closures long before the 2012 strike.

How Chicago Teachers Got Organized to Strike

By Norine Gutekanst, CTU Organizing Director

The seven-day Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike in September didn’t just beat back a mayor bent on imposing some very bad “education reforms.” The union also developed a deep new layer of member leaders and won broad public support. One poll showed 66 percent of parents sided with us.

Our win was possible because of several years of patient organizing, focused on getting members to step up.

The work began with the election of a new leadership team from a reform caucus in June 2010. Many in the caucus had waged battles going back to 2001 against the school closings that were targeting Black and Latino neighborhoods.

We knew we had to build up the union to be ready to strike, if necessary, to defend our contract and our students. But the vast majority of our members had not experienced any of the nine strikes from 1967 through 1987. Leaders were committed to building a member-driven union to battle alongside parents and students and make our contract campaign one front in a bigger fight to save public education.

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LA High School Fights Against LAUSD’s Scorched-Earth Restructuring

5 Dec

A black, brown, and working class school slated for restructuring.  Years of neglect and mismanagement by the central district.  A top-down, careerist superintendent.  Veteran and outspoken teachers at risk for dismissal.  And maybe most importantly, parents, teachers, and students fighting back.

This could be describing Oakland but in this case it’s Los Angeles.  Right now Crenshaw High School is under threat just as Oakland schools have been.  Just as schools in working class, black and brown neighborhoods across the country have been.  But at the same time as the corporate-driven austerity (e.g. budget cuts and taking schools out of democratic control) attacks increase, there are signs of increasing fightbacks, such as in Chicago, anti-school closure struggles across the country, and of course here in Oakland.  While it’s too soon to say if a movement to defend and transform public education is maturing, it’s never too soon to support others in struggle against the austerity program.  So please read this letter from organizers at Crenshaw High, pass it on, and get in touch with the organizers at if you want to involve yourself deeper.  An injury to one is an injury to all!

The letter follows the introductory paragraphs.

A protest at Crenshaw High, Los Angeles.

A protest at Crenshaw High, Los Angeles.

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

I hope you’re very well. I’m writing hoping that you can urgently pass this copy-and-pasted article on to your networks. There is a struggle occurring in Los Angeles that will have local and national implications — between Superintendent Deasy and stakeholders at Crenshaw High School. Deasy is one of the most nationally-known superintendents and represents a scorched-earth approach to reform, sometimes referred to as being part of the “Ed Reformers” grouping, along with Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, and others. Some say Deasy has national aspirations. Crenshaw High School is nationally-known for its arts and athletics, and has come to be known more recently for a nationally-recognized Extended Learning Cultural model, based on meeting all students’ needs, true administration-union collaboration, cultural relevance, and community investment and connection.

Superintendent Deasy now wants to reconstitute Crenshaw High School. An important struggle is emerging.

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Lakeview Teaches

4 Dec

Sometimes deep and poignant struggle is hard to capture in words.  But when someone is able to it helps keep the transformative moment alive in our hearts and pushes us on to the next upsurge.  Thankfully this reflection by a key participant of the Lakeview Sit-In truly revives what we felt during the 18 whirlwind days at the People’s School.  We hope it also carries you on to the next Lakeview.

Lakeview March 2Lakeview Class

Lakeview Teaches

By Margarita Monteverde

In the long list of defeats that keep us humble and push us forward

knowing only that growth and knowledge come quickly and are constant

yet we remain endlessly chasing wisdom

Defeat is constantly an option

and all we can do is run the risk

We never know, but we always try

As revolutionaries and as humans-

what drives our disempowered, exhausted selves

-hearing a ten year old say that they no longer want to be a cop

-when a comrade asks me to hold him because he is scared to feel his own power

-when the police scare us with trespassing notices and THEN we open the doors of a school they thought was theirs

-the anger of standing next to a killer who continues to hold more rights to a public educational space than I ever will as an educator

-the intricate maneuver of balancing security with inclusiveness (the shades of gray between being called “fascists” and keeping away “pedophiles”)

-coming “home” to 15 children: hands and faces covered in paint, making signs fighting for schools, education, our future

-that a 3 year old learned who schools really should belong to-looking at police planted where she had slept for 3 weeks stating “Who’s Schools? Our schools”

-words from a parent “Ill do my best to be out there with my son but if not keep in mind that we r there in spirit…we love you”

-A sign held by 3 little boys that says “Tony Smith…let the 99% decide”

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When Was the Last Time You Read a Book?

30 Nov

     We published this article, written by two Oakland teachers, in our most recent newsletter.  They were trying to capture a very real and very ironic problem for teachers: overworked as they are, how often do teachers get to teach themselves.  If this resonates with you, teacher or not, please let us know in the comments.

When Was the Last Time You Read a Book?

By Sarah Rose Oyfstand and Aram Mendoza

When was the last time you read a book?

I spent two weeks of my summer participating in an intensive professional development with teachers from my school along and dozens of other bay area teachers from various social justice oriented high schools. The seminar was excellent – everyone walked away excited to start the year with new ideas and methods for helping our students learn how to read and discuss difficult texts. During the closing circle, a teacher from a progressive school in Oakland stated, “I resolve to read during the school year, just like I’m expecting my students to read.”

A simple yet provocative statement. During the lunch hour a handful of teachers sat and discussed the fact that as educators we have a hard time carving out space for intellectual and political development in our own lives. One teacher reflected that, “during the summer my partner doesn’t want to watch any documentaries or movies that get our intellectual juices flowing because it’s summer, and that’s the time to take a break. But during the school year we also don’t want to watch things that provoke us to think too much because need a break from the classroom and just want to decompress.” The majority of the teachers echoed the sentiment.

How many times have you heard something similar? Be honest, when was the last time you read a book? When was the last time you read a book that wasn’t a novel? When was the last time you were in a study group?

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Why I did TFA, and why you shouldn’t

13 Mar

Essay by Gary Rubinstein.  The original post can be found on the Teach For Us blog for Teach for America teachers and alumni.


There was a time, not very long ago, when I was an active volunteer alumni recruiter for TFA. And, as you might expect, I was great at it. One year, I think it was 1998, I did a recruitment session at Colorado College, a very small school, which brought the house down. A year later when TFA published the list of the most popular schools for TFA, Colorado College was listed alongside The University Of Michigan and all the other common TFA schools as one of the top twenty schools for that year.

The last time I recruited for TFA, I went to my alma mater, Tufts, in 2002. I even wrote this editorial which ran in The Tufts Daily.

There are many similarities between now and 1991, when I graduated from college.  Bush was in the White House, war was in the Middle East, and the job market was unfriendly.  The prospect of being unemployed and living at home caused my altruistic tendencies to heighten as I applied to the newly formed Teach For America (TFA) program.  TFA recruits college seniors from any major to sign up to teach for two years in some of the most under-resourced schools in the country.  Four months after my acceptance, just as the current college seniors entered kindergarten, I began the first of my two years teaching sixth grade in Houston.

Signing up for TFA required doing something I rarely did as a college student – taking a giant risk.  Sure I risked being turned down when I asked girls out at fraternity parties.  I risked getting a C in Psych One when I neglected to study for the final.  Those were easy risks to take, and, besides, both of those risks were softened by the fact that I was drunk.  Joining TFA required I risk complete failure.  Though I tried to envision myself inspiring sixth graders to develop the same affection for numbers that led me to major in math, I knew that a classroom of kids, even ‘needy’ kids, could eat a young idealistic teacher alive.  Aside from personal failure, I had to risk financial failure.  Even though the pay wasn’t bad (In addition to a full teaching salary, we received additional money from an education grant), I would not be able to afford some of the things my friends could.  TFA was a two-year program, so I could still continue with my life ambition to be a lawyer after the program was finished.  Still, I was concerned by the prospect of starting law school just as many of the friends I graduated with were beginning their final year of law school.  I worried that I would be giving everyone I graduated with a two-year head start in the race of life.

Several forces combined to lead me to my eventual decision.  Most importantly, it sounded exciting.  For once, I’d be doing something ‘real’.  I’d be doing something valuable for society.  I’d be making a difference.  Also, I really wasn’t as thrilled about applying to law school as my mother was.  As current seniors read this, and think about their own decisions about their futures, I wish I could portray a dramatic ‘moment of truth’ that I went through.  I could describe myself sitting in my dorm room with my TFA acceptance in one hand and my Harvard Law School acceptance in the other.  I look back and forth at each letter and freeze on the law school letter.  Then I sigh, shake my head, and begin to chuckle.  I take a look at the TFA letter, then back one last time to the Harvard letter before ripping the law school acceptance into confetti.  Unfortunately, that’s not how it happened.  As soon as I heard about it, I knew I wanted to do TFA.  I didn’t even apply to law school.  I was accepted to the program in March, and began teaching in August.

As a student, I wasn’t known for making the best decisions.  “Double majoring in Math and Philosophy will be cool”, “Let’s stay on campus senior year.  We’ll get single dorm rooms”, “It’s never too late for a cheesesteak”.  Joining TFA was, by far, the best decision I ever made at Tufts or anywhere else.  Though I risked complete failure, and struggled bravely through my first year, I eventually made it through my commitment.  In doing so, I helped a lot of kids to learn and to enjoy math.

No other path I could have chosen would have exposed me to the range of emotions I experienced in TFA.  One of my best moments was during my second year of teaching.  The school at which I taught had 800 freshmen but only 200 seniors.  And of those seniors, twenty-five of them had not yet passed the standardized test that determined if they would graduate.  I volunteered to teach them in an extra class.  When the test results returned, twenty-three of the twenty-five passed.  As they received their diplomas, aside from being proud of them, I was proud of myself for putting forth the extra effort for those kids.

The low point of my experience also occurred during my second year.  Returning from Thanksgiving break, I learned that one of my top students, a sixteen-year-old girl named Nohemi, had been killed by her jealous ex-boyfriend.  I found myself trying to counsel her classmates at a time that I needed my own counseling.

By joining TFA you will emerge as a better person, prepared to face whatever challenges lie in your future.  Any time I have applied for a job, I have been able to look the interviewer in the eye and say that I am not intimidated by any challenge.  Deadlines don’t scare me.  I lived with a deadline that was marked by the end of the period bell.  Problem solving and ability to improvise are skills that I developed by necessity.

After the two years, I taught for two more years, winning teacher of the year at my school, and publishing a book about my experiences.  I never went to law school, though many of my TFA friends did.  I don’t feel like those friends have somehow ‘lapped’ me on the circular track of life.  The race thing, in fact, turned out to be an inaccurate analogy.

I invite current seniors to come to the evening informational sessions this week to learn more about TFA and the application deadline.

I’ve been getting some emails from prospective corps members recently asking me if I think they should apply or not. They say that my writings and the writings of others have made them realize that TFA might have its flaws. But, they wonder, do those flaws outweigh the benefits of the program?

When I joined TFA twenty years ago, I did it because I believed that poor kids deserved to have someone like me helping battle education inequity in this country. At the time, there were massive teacher shortages in high need areas. The 1990 corps had 500 members and the 1991 corps had 750 members, with a third of us going to Houston. I was one of those Houston corps members, the first group to ever go to Houston. At the time, we knew that we weren’t going to be great teachers. It was unrealistic to believe otherwise. But we also knew that the jobs we were taking were jobs that nobody else wanted. Principals who were hiring these ‘Teachers For America’ or other paraphrasings of this unknown organization, were completely desperate. If not for us, our students, most likely, would be taught by a different substitute each day. Even if we were bad permanent teachers, we WERE permanent teachers and for kids who had little in life they can call permanent, it was something. The motto for TFA back then could have been ‘Hey, we’re better than nothing.’

And we got out butts kicked. As tough as this was, we partly expected it. That was what we signed up for. We were like those front line Civil War soldiers — the ones with the bayonets whose job it was to weaken the enemy front line ever so slightly at the expense of our own health and well-being.

Many of us quit. I think that a third of the 1990 charter corps did. I’m not sure how many of the 1991s did. I lost count. Those of us who made it through the first year had pretty good second years. It was true, I guess, that what didn’t kill us only made us stronger.

Most of the people I knew left after their second year. They went to law school or other graduate programs. Even if they had a bad first year and a much better second year, they could feel they did their part in the fight to help kids. If many of those kids really were going to have rotating subs, we could be sure that we were doing less damage than good.

I’m glad I ‘did’ TFA. Twenty years ago they filled a need. Putting a few hundred barely trained teachers into the toughest to serve schools was one of those concepts that was ‘so crazy, it might just work.’ We weren’t always doing ‘good,’ but we also weren’t doing much harm. Our five or six hundred teachers were pretty insignificant in the scheme of things.

Over the next twenty years, TFA did a lot of growing, but not a lot of evolving. They replicated their institutes and increased their regions. The 2011 corps is nearly 6,000, twelve times as big as the cohorts from the early 90s. Unfortunately, the landscape in education has changed a lot in the past twenty years. Instead of facing teacher shortages, we have teacher surpluses. There are regions where experienced teachers are being laid off to make room for incoming TFA corps members because the district has signed a contract with TFA, promising to hire their new people. In situations like this, it is hard to say with confidence that these under trained new teachers are really doing less harm than good.

As TFA tried to grow and gain private and federal money, they had to develop a public relations machine. They found ways to spotlight their few successes. There were some dynamo teachers — there were bound to be. And then some of those teachers advanced to leadership roles. Some started schools, like the KIPP program which started in Houston in 1995. Some got appointed to big education jobs, like Michelle Rhee as D.C. chancellor, and some got elected to public office, like Michael Johnston as a state senator in Colorado.

More and more alumni started charter schools rather than take the long route of becoming an assistant principal at a ‘district’ school and then advancing to principal. Some of these charter schools were successful, some weren’t. Some of the successful ones, it is documented, mysteriously lose their toughest to educate kids. TFA ignored this as they needed success stories to grow.

Even through most of this, up until about three years ago, I still supported TFA and encouraged people to apply to it. But right now, I don’t.

Twenty years ago TFA was, to steal an expression from the late great Douglas Adams — ‘mostly harmless.’  Then about ten years ago they became ‘potentially harmful.’  Now, in my opinion, they have become ‘mostly harmful.’

Though the change happened so gradually, I hardly noticed it, TFA is now completely different than it was when I joined. I still believe in the original mission of TFA as much as anyone possibly can. The problem is, in my opinion, that TFA has become one of the biggest obstacles in achieving that mission.

TFA has highlighted their few successes so much that many politicians actually believe that first year TFA teachers are effective. They believe that there are lazy veteran teachers who are not ‘accountable’ to their students and who are making a lot of money so we’re better off firing those older teachers and replacing them with these young go-getters.

Some TFA alums have become leaders of school systems in various cities and states. In New York City, several of the deputy chancellors are from TFA. I already mentioned ex-chancellor Michelle Rhee who now runs StudentsFirst. John White runs the Recovery District in New Orleans. Kevin Huffman, former TFA public relations VP, is the state commissioner of Tennessee. TFA likes to point to these leaders as the true effect of TFA. Even if they haven’t really fixed the training model much and the first years are pretty awful teachers, and even if those first year teachers aren’t ‘needed’ anymore to fill any teacher shortages, it doesn’t matter since as long as a fraction of them become these ‘leaders’ TFA will have a positive impact in a big way on the education landscape.

Which sounds great except these leaders are some of the most destructive forces in public education. They seem to love nothing more than labeling schools as ‘failing,’ shutting them down, and blaming the supposed failure on the veteran teachers. The buildings of the closed schools are taken over by charter networks, often with leaders who were TFA alums and who get salaries of $200,000 or more to run a few schools.

Rather than be honest about both their successes and their failures, they deny any failures, and charge forward with an agenda that has not worked and will never work. Their ‘proof’ consists of a few high-performing charters. These charters are unwilling to release the data that proves that they succeed by booting the ‘worst’ kids — the ones that bring down their test scores. See this recent peer reviewed research paper from Berkely about KIPPs attrition.

TFA and the destructive TFA spawned leaders suffer a type of arrogance and overconfidence where they completely ignore any evidence that their beliefs are flawed.  The leaders TFA has spawned are, to say this in the kindest way possible, ‘lacking wisdom.’

They say things like ‘Poverty is not destiny,’ which is true if they’re saying that it is possible for some to overcome it, but not true if they are saying that teachers, alone — and untrained teachers, at that — have the power to do this.

And the very worst thing that the TFA alum turned into education ‘reformers’ advocate is strong ‘accountability’ by measuring a teacher’s ‘value added’ through standardized test scores. It might be hard for someone who is not a teacher yet to believe that this is not a cop out by lazy teachers. The fact is that even the companies that do the measurements say that these calculations are very inaccurate. Over a third of the time, they misidentify effective teachers as ineffective and vice versa, in certain models. ‘Value added’ is in it’s infancy, and certainly not ready to be rolled out yet. But ALL the TFA reformers I’ve followed are strong supporters of this kind of evaluation.

So TFA has participated in building a group of ‘leaders’ who, in my opinion, are assisting in the destruction of public education. If this continues, there will soon be, again, a large shortage of teachers as nobody in their right mind would enter this profession for the long haul knowing they can be fired because of an inaccurate evaluation process. And then, of course, TFA can grow more since they will be needed to fill those shortages that the leaders they supported caused.

So if you’re about to graduate college and you want to ‘make a positive difference’ the way I wanted to twenty years ago, you should not do what I did and join TFA. Had TFA evolved with the times, and it’s not too late, I’m hoping they eventually do, then maybe it could have been something that I’d advise new graduates to do. Maybe they can make it a four year program. I know that this was not the idea of TFA, but I do think that when people teach for two years and then leave, it contributes to the instability of the schools that need the most stability. Maybe by bringing fewer people but having a plan for them to be true leaders with ‘wisdom’ and the ability to analyze the facts, even when those facts are counter to what they’d like them to be, future TFA leaders can be competent enough to handle the responsibilities they’ve been trusted with.

But if you enter TFA now, I think you are contributing more to the problem, unfortunately, than to the solution. This is not to say that the current 2011 corps — God help them with their dozen hours of student teaching classes of 4 to 15 kids — aren’t great people who are giving it their all. I’m sure that most of them, deep down, agree with everything I’m saying.

But if you truly feel that TFA is really the ONLY way that you have a chance to ‘give back’ to the society that has provided you such opportunities, I suppose that you can apply, but there are some things you should demand before accepting their offer. First, you should refuse to be placed in a region that is currently suffering teacher layoffs. In those places, you will be replacing someone who, most likely, would have done a better job than you. Why would you want to live with that guilt?  I was horrible my first year, but I was better than the rotating group of subs I replaced. Second, you should refuse to go to a charter school. Though there are some charter schools that are not corrupt, I believe that most are. They NEED those test scores and they do anything they can to get them. This often means ‘counseling out’ the kids that TFA was created to serve. Third, you need to demand that you get an authentic training experience. TFA signs contracts with districts where they promise to train you properly. But team teaching with three other teachers for twelve days with classes with as few as 4 kids is not fair to you and it is really not fair to the kids that you will teach. They deserve someone who is trained properly.  Fourth, you should commit to teaching for four years instead of two.  America let you practice on their kids for your first year — you’ve got to give back three good years to make up it.

TFA does not like new recruits making any demands, so if you make them, be prepared to be asked to leave. If enough people, however, make these demands they can’t ask everyone to leave and they might consider fixing these flaws.

It does make me feel bad to write this post. I hate that TFA has lost its way so badly and that they have become a huge part of the reason that the country is going in the wrong direction with regard to ed reform. I never thought they would amass so much power. Because they have refused to learn from their failures, which they deny, and from critics, like me, they have found themselves in this difficult position. When the corporate ed reform bubble bursts, as I believe it will soon — you can’t lie about inflated success forever — I worry that TFA burst along with it. That’s too bad since the people in charge of TFA do believe they are doing what is good for the kids of this country. They just aren’t sophisticated enough to know that they are wrong.

I’m hoping that one day I’ll be able, again, to sing the praises of TFA and advise people who want to make a positive difference for kids to become a member.  For this to happen, though, TFA will have to make some changes.  Primarily, they will have to break the alliance they currently have with the so-called reform movement.  It’s not working and it never will work.  Pretending it is, like pretending that all the first year corps members are succeeding because a few outliers are, or that all alumni run charter schools are succeeding because a few outliers are.  All this proves is that in a large enough data set there will, inevitably,  be outliers.

And don’t misunderstand this essay as me denouncing the organization or of turning in my membership card.  I’m all for the mission of TFA — to get more soldiers to improve education for poor kids in this country.  But I want these people utilized in a way that helps, not that brings down the public education system promoting the myth that firing teachers and shutting down schools really works.

TFA, in its current vise, is serving a purpose for which it was never intended.  It serves a purpose that is no longer needed, nor wanted by the people it is serving.

TFA, if it is not careful, will face the same fate as Blockbuster video.  It filled a need in the 90s and the 2000s, but did not adapt wisely to the changing conditions.  Blockbuster is all but gone, and TFA if it refuses to adapt may face the same fate.

If I were ‘America’ I would have this to say to TFA:  While I appreciate your offer to ‘teach’ for me, I’ve already got enough untrained teachers for my poorest kids.  And if teaching is just a stepping stone, for you, on the path to becoming an influential education ‘leader,’ thanks, but no thanks to that too.  I don’t need the kind of leaders you spawn — leaders who think education ‘reform’ is done by threats of school closings and teacher firings.  These leaders celebrate school closings rather than see them as their own failures to help them.  These leaders deny any proof that their reforms are failing and instead continue to use P.R. to inflate their own claims of success.  We’re having enough trouble swatting the number of that type of leader you’ve already given us.  If you want to think of a new way to harness the brain power and energy of the ‘best and brightest,’ please do, but if you’re just going to give us a scaled up version of the program that tries to fill a need that no longer exists, please go and teach for someone else.

Charters Divide and Conquer

5 Feb

Written by an anonymous Oakland substitute teacher

Oakland, California has always been a hotbed for radicalism.  On the morning of October 25th 2011, the Oakland Police along with numerous other police agencies “broke-up” the first Occupy Oakland encampment.  Later that night an ex-marine almost lost his life after being struck in the head by a “non-lethal” projectile fired by the police into a crowd of peaceful protesters.  The following night, October 26, saw a crowd of near 3,000 retake Oscar Grant Plaza (formerly Frank Ogawa Plaza) and vote for a November 2nd General Strike in response to the outrageous police violence from the previous day.  Also that night, not too far from where the historic Occupy vote took place, another vote decided the fate of five public elementary schools in Oakland.  The Oakland School Board decided to close these schools saving a mere two million dollars.  At that same meeting there were several charter representatives applying for charter school renewals.  The growing divide between public schools and charter schools was on full display during that contentious meeting.

As a teacher who has taught for both types of schools, I am not inspired by either model. However, where I have criticisms of the public school system, I am completely against the corporate charter model. Specifically – the nationwide ‘Knowledge is Power Program’ Charter Schools (aka KIPP) and California-based Aspire “Public” Charter Schools, who both list the following as “partners/investors” on their respective websites: The Walton Foundation (Walmart), The Broad Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Microsoft), The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, Goldman Sachs Foundation, The Prudential Foundation, The Doris and Donald Fisher Fund (Gap/Banana Republic/Old Navy) and the Wells Fargo Foundation.  It is to these two charter school organizations that I chose to direct my attention.  The ruling-class – banks and corporations – that are directly responsible for creating the current conditions in urban public schools, are now investing billions in these poor working-class communities.  They maintain a facade of “concern” about the state of public education, all the while viewing these schools and students as material for making profits.  Through the lens of personal experience I will shed light on the questions of how and why these corporations are choosing to invest in the education of the working class.

Divide and Conquer

The ruling-class has always been very successful at producing and reproducing the divisions necessary for capitalism to exist.  Although public education has the potential to produce a unified working-class, it has always been ran in the interests of the wealthy.  The wealthy depend on class divisions to produce their billions in profit from the exploitation of a divided working-class.   As these class divisions, as well as race, gender and other social divisions, serve as the foundation of capitalism.  Public and private schools have always produced and reproduced these divisions, and charter schools are no different, especially the KIPP and Aspire models.

It is important to point out that not all charter schools are tied to ruling-class foundations. There are some that attempt to utilize a critical pedagogy in the interests of “progress,” “social justice” or some other loosely defined ideal.  Unfortunately, these schools are mostly isolated and often have a hard time maintaining enough public and financial support to stay open.

In conclusion, these ruling class banks and corporations are now directly investing in poor working-class education because they want to play a more direct role in producing and reproducing the inequitable conditions that allow them to enjoy record profits.  They are comfortable at the top and now have the legal structures (i.e. tax loopholes) that allow them to stay at the top.  As a teacher with experience working for KIPP, and to a lesser extent Aspire, I want to give readers a sense of why I came to this conclusion.  But before I go into these lived experiences I want to explain how these corporations, through philanthropic foundations, are able to open and run charter schools in these communities.

With foundations like these…

The current tax system allows for corporations to avoid being taxed on their profits by setting up foundations for charitable purposes.  For instance, Walmart is allowed to put a certain percentage of their profits into The Walton Family Foundation to avoid being taxed on these profits at the government’s current rates. These millions to billions of dollars that would otherwise go towards state tax revenues for necessary social services are now put in foundations who are only mandated to give six percent of those profits annually to charity.  These foundations both allow for corporations to maintain their positions atop the ruling class and manipulate education to serve their interests.[i]

The Knowledge is Profit Program – aka KIPP Schools

KIPP is a huge chain of 109 charters enrolling 32,000 students in all grade levels, with a majority of middle schools.  They serve 95% African  American and Latino students, 80% of whom are eligible for free or reduced lunch.[ii]   I worked at the KIPP charter school in West Oakland for one year.  In that short time I knew this was not the type of school I wanted to work for, that this was not the model that would lead to any kind of wide-scale “educational progress” for working class Black and Latino students.

The KIPP behavioral model insures that the students will know one thing before they leave, conformity.  The typical KIPP school day is based largely on how well students are able to stand in a straight line and “assign themselves” while in line.  “Assign Yourself” is the language a KIPP teacher is required to use to let a child know that they must also be reading or working on homework while in line.  Each class must assemble outside the classroom in this fashion before a lesson can begin.  On average a KIPP student is denied at least 15 to 20 minutes of learning per day as they wait for fellow “KIPPSTERS” to assemble in a straight, silent and active line.  Of course this is my personal experience and may not be reflective of all 109 KIPP schools.  Yet, I do feel that the KIPP behavior management model is designed to produce uncritical conformist students who are “prepared for college.”  If these students never make it to college then they are readily prepared for a future of conformity in the service, military, or prison industry which are always in need of workers, soldiers or prisoners, disproportionately made up of working class people of color.

Seeds of Elitism

I want to highlight a situation I experienced during my year at KIPP.  The school shares their campus with West Oakland Middle School, a traditional public school.  This situation, where different schools share the same campus, is quite common in today’s educational landscape, a landscape that has seen the rapid rise of charter schools.  Anyone visiting the campus would notice the difference in student behavior in the hallways of the two different schools.  What that visitor would not notice is the way KIPP teachers and administrators use the less disciplined behavior of the West Oakland Middle School students to instill a sense of elitism in the “KIPPSTERS.” I constantly heard the KIPP staff tell the students how they are better than “those kids.”  Many of these students are from the same neighborhood.  However, during the school day, KIPP students would be told that they are not like “those kids” and any unruly behaviors by “KIPPSTERS” would be equated with the behaviors of the West Oakland Middle School students.  Then, after school, the students of both schools would walk home together and play at the same parks.  This imagined elitism being sold to charter school students is another example of the many divisions produced and reproduced daily in the capitalist education system.


Aspire Public Schools is another California based charter chain that, like KIPP, serves primarily impoverished black and brown youth and follows their self-prescribed “College for Certain” model.[iii]  At Aspire as well as many other charters, “open” admissions is a lottery process that the school claims is “random drawing” while, at the same time, stipulating priority to “founding families” and residents of the district. My brief experience with Aspire Schools came in the form of an interview for a teaching position at an Aspire school in East Oakland.  During my interview, I asked the Assistant Principal about the demographics of the school.  He informed me that the majority of the students were from Latino families.  The neighborhood surrounding the school is split between African American and Latino families.  I asked him if the school demographics have created any tension within the community.  His answer was, of course, “yes.” He went on to describe the piece of land that was being coveted by the charter school for use but belonged to the African American Christian Church next door.  The church was concerned that this school serves almost exclusively Latino students in a racially diverse neighborhood.  I don’t know the outcome of the conflict but it leads me to wonder, how is it that this alleged “public random drawing” continually favors one ethnic group over the other in an ethnically diverse area?  I don’t have the answer to that question, but I’ll assume it has something to do with test scores.  Whatever the reason, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine that this “lottery” system results in tension between African  American and Latino families in the surrounding neighborhood.


The experiences I have had working at KIPP and interviewing at the Aspire School leads me to believe that charters are doing a great job of producing and reproducing the divisions necessary for capitalism to survive, whether it is African  American and Latino families struggling for scraps from the table of big banks and corporations or KIPP middle school students being misguided to believe in their superiority over traditional public school students.  These are only two of the many divisions being produced by the wave of charter schools that bring a divide and conquer tactic to education as well.  This corporate colonialism looks like primarily white ruling-class foundations backed by big business operating in mostly Black and Latino neighborhoods.

Of course there are many families who swear by the KIPP and Aspire Charter Schools.  I have heard many parents refer to KIPP and Aspire Schools as a blessing.  This is why we must provide these critical perspectives to all working class parents whose students go to public, private or charter schools.  The more students, parents, and teachers know about the ways in which the ruling-class divides us, the better chance we have of forming a unified movement to confront these divisions.

[i]       The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, ed. Incite! Women of Color Collective, South End Press, Cambridge, MA, 2007



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