Monday, August 1, 2011

Why Teach for America?

What exactly is the draw of Teach for America? I’m sure you’ve heard about the near exponential expansion of our generation’s peace corps. Teach for America is a two-year teaching program that sends top college graduates to teach in low-income and low-performing schools. It was recently reported that 10% of ivy league graduates applied for Teach for America (and not all were accepted). Highly selective and highly driven to “reform education,” Teach for America alumni are not only in positions of influence within public education, but in public policy, law, and business. Yet my question remains: Why Teach for America? What has drawn so many multitudes of talented young people into this program?

Hailed as the “civil rights issue of our generation,” Teach for America’s purpose is essentially “to close the achievement gap.” Young students in low-performing schools never have the opportunity to succeed in life if they’re stuck in a bad school. So, through employing and recruiting the best teachers, Teach for America aims to close this achievement gap, allowing the poor to rise to new opportunities in college and beyond.

The draw of Teach for America is primarily an issue of social justice. A generation that longs for justice sees in education a means to achieving equity (note: the concept of equity is central to all of Teach for America). Why do we teach? To bring about social change and social justice. This has caught the hearts and minds of many of the most able young people in America.

Now, before I offer my incomplete critique, I should say that I heartily support Teach for America. Getting more talented young students to teach in inner city schools instead of sit in Wall Street offices is inherently a good thing.

Having said that, Teach for America is based on the philosophical premise based on equity. We must ask ourselves a simple question: what if this was achieved? If the achievement gap was closed, and every student performed exactly the same on standardized tests and in college entrance exams, would this be a good thing? When we look at it like this, it seems that this vision of using education to bring about universal social equity is based on a subtle socialism. Whether or not we could prove this is beside the point: education is the engine for social change. It is, in their view, the primary redemptive force.

What is left out of this equation? I would posit that what is missing here is any discussion of truth. Is it not interesting that what is taught receives a back seat (in motivation at least) to the social outcomes it provides? In a pluralist society in which even the concept of truth is suspect, one must step back and rethink the widespread draw of a movement like Teach for America. How is it that throngs of quick-minded young people, many of whom have had an elite education themselves, will throw themselves into a social cause with relatively little discussion of the state-shaped curriculum taught in public schools? Here, it is not teaching what is true that matters, but it is teaching in service a better (more equal) democratic society.

Contrast this with the Christian vision. Christianity is a story of universal history chronicling the words and activities of the one true God and His purposes for mankind. At the culmination of this story is the Christian gospel, the story of the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and second coming of Jesus. This story of good news has the power to transform an individual – to redeem from death, to regenerate, to “break the curse” of sin, and to give hope. The gospel then transforms men and women, and puts them on the path to goodness.

Yet the Christian faith is more than pietism. It is universal history, and as such, it gives a complete picture of both the natural and supernatural world. When fully understand, it is believed to be the landscape for seeing all things, from the intricacies of plant life to the artistry of literature. It is not just religious truth, it is the truth about all things.

And when this goodness and truth are combined in an individual, all of human life, both public and private, become, in a word, beautiful. God is able to turn even the destructiveness of sin in beauty, and as such, his covenant people move through culture and human life creating things of beauty. Indeed, secular people do this as well. But the Christian does this as witness to the beauty of God himself; he does this as an image-bearer and sub-creator reflecting the mind of the maker (to steal a phrase from Dorothy Sayers).

Goodness, truth and beauty overflow from the Christian gospel. There are the things that must be taught. This is what ought to captivate generations of young scholars and leaders who seek to form a better world. Using education as a pseudo-Savior can never really satisfy either teacher or student. For education to be truly powerful, it must look beyond itself.

I envision a different kind of movement…a movement I will blog about in my next post.

Making College Cheaper

A recent column in The Economist attempts to tackle the problem of college tuition head on. Citing Derek Bok’s opinion of higher education (“Universities share one characteristic with compulsive gamblers and exiled royalty: there is never enough money to satisfy their desires.”), Schumpter offers at least two examples of individuals working to bring down the exponentially rising cost of college.

First, Vance Fried, of Oklahoma State University, believes it is possible make a first class undergraduate cost $6,700 a year rather than the $25,900 charged by public research institutions or the $51,500 charged by their private peers. First, separate the funding of teaching and researching. Researching, yes, is a public good, but undergraduates, who mistakenly think they’re paying for their own education (not independent research projects) should not have shell out the cash for expensive laboratories and tomes of research about the jussive use of Hebrew verbs. Second, increase the student-teacher ratio. Successful classrooms are more dependent on the quality of teacher than the size of the classroom (many K-12 experts would agree on this as well). Third, eliminate or consolidate programs with few students. Let the market determine, as least in part, what is offered. And finally, cut administrative costs. Private research universities “spend $7,000 a year per student on ‘administrative support.’” Perhaps the assistant dean of amphibious marine biology isn’t really necessary after all.

Second, Shai Reshef, an educational entrepreneur, has sparked a new idea to make college not just cheaper, but free. His University of the People offers a free higher education online (not counting fees for applications and correcting exams), aimed to help those in the developing world who otherwise couldn’t afford college. How does he do it? First, he’s recruited an impressive cadre of 2,000 academic volunteers who will proctor online courses for free. Second, he utilizes “courseware” on the internet (whether it will remain free, is another question). Resher’s university is not yet accredited, but with the increasing amount of top-notch material online, his idea may just take hold.

College should not be as expensive as it is. In an industry that has raised its fees 5 times higher than the rate of inflation in the past 30 years, something has to give. Especially for those young graduates who are now finding that (a) an undergraduate degree is now like a high school degree was 30 years ago – you need masters to be really competitive, (b) jobs are harder to come by in this economy, and (c) debt sucks. Young people will eventually get wise and decide on forgoing the perceived prestige of a $200,000 education and simply look for a program that gets them what they need.

It’s time for higher education to get the shakedown it deserves.