The time is ripe to talk about Teach For America. A couple of weeks ago TFA held an on-campus information session. The photos, the data, the stories … the whole thing made me want to stand up and salute something, anything, with a lone tear running down my cheek. On Monday night, I attended an address by Michelle Rhee ’92, D.C. School Chancellor and former Baltimore TFA corps member. Despite the September info-session’s plentiful pizza and pictures, Rhee won the contest for most inspiring hour — ever. She’s amazing, but more on that later.
I was so captivated by Rhee that when she concluded, all I could think was, “I need to give this woman something.” I looked about the room and felt around in my pockets. There it was — the tiny pocketknife I carry with me wherever I go. I figured she wouldn’t be interested in the knife itself; after all, it came as a gift from my brother and has my name engraved in it. But if I could just steal away for a minute and cut off a lock of my hair …
Shocked at how creepy I could be if I put my mind to it, and still searching my pockets, I realized that if I were to ask Michelle Rhee what gift I could possibly give her she would say something banal like “make a difference” or “apply to TFA.” Well, I already did that (applied) and I won’t hear back for months, so what now?
Luckily, one more item of interest — a wadded up piece of paper — remained in my left pocket. The paper was a black and white quarter card that had been handed to me nonchalantly outside the auditorium by an unofficial looking character. Scribbled on the back were the notes I had taken during the address. On the front was a message from the Cornell Organization for Labor Action (COLA) that I had not yet bothered to read.
Here’s the gist: Michelle Rhee is evil. She lays off experienced teachers. She wanted to unilaterally impose evaluation systems based on test scores rather than “actual teacher performance.” She solicits little input from the community. She fires principals without transparency as to the process.
You might be wondering what this has to do with my quest to find a non-creepy gift to impress Ms. Rhee. Well here’s the gift: without any authority whatsoever, I hereby change COLA’s name to COCA — Cornell Organization for Counterproductive Action. This change shall go into effect immediately and expire only if and when COCA retracts the message on its quarter cards and begins using the English language properly.
COCA’s verbiage is laden with the buzzwords of know-nothing protectionists — evidence of an organization in desperate search of a cause. Unsurprisingly, their appeals for respect for teacher “experience” and longevity, administrative “transparency” and “community” involvement bypass the core issue of student achievement. But even if we allow that COCA is spot on and Rhee is a bit of an autocrat, if she cares about results over experience, give her a shot. If she is opaque and successful, let her stay. If she ignores the community and kids learn, give her a medal. Respect for experience, transparency and community involvement should not be viewed as goods in themselves, rather means to be employed in the achievement of a worthy goal. Rhee can take them or leave them as tools in her Chancellor’s toolbox. So long as there is radical improvement in student performance, we shouldn’t fault her.
The sort of process-driven criticism COCA uses appeals to our notion of justice — the worker getting a fair shake in those affairs affecting her livelihood. In other words, it is the big mean boss versus the lowly teacher. But this is not the paradigm! What we in fact have is a tiny, charismatic administrator with friends in high places versus the screeching teacher flicking the light switch on and off in an effort to get students to pay attention. And look what COCA has accomplished. We are still talking office rivalry rather than social justice for kids getting a lousy education.
Time will tell if Rhee’s layoffs and restructuring of D.C. schools were prudent. For now, I believe in her. More specifically, I believe in her harsh calculus. The justice in protecting one mediocre teacher (COCA’s poster child) is far outweighed by the injustice brought to bear on his 30 languishing students. And whether you believe in COCA or COLA, Rhee’s address should have been a call to action. It painted over the old sign that said, “Those who can’t do, teach” with a fresh invitation: “Those who don’t have a clue what they want to do, but have the leadership and skills to do anything, teach (preferably in D.C.).”
Andrew Daines is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at email@example.com. The Right Stuff appears alternate Fridays this semester.