Five years ago was the beginning of my strange teaching career that started at the Los Angeles TFA institute and has brought me here to Kobe, Japan. In that time I’ve read dozens and dozens of books about teaching. Since starting this blog though, I developed a keen interest in revisiting one of the first teaching books that I read: Ms. Lora’s story, a part of the pre-institute reading.
Ms. Lora’s story is meant as an inspirational work for new corps members, documenting the struggles and triumphs of Houston corps member Aurora Lora. Following her interactions with four specific students, one from each year of her four year teaching career, the story tells the story of Ms. Lora overcoming the low expectations at her school and raising the academic students of her students in the face of enormous obstacles. The book essentially conveys the official TFA narrative: a school’s students suffered academically due to low expectations, and a young teacher came in with high expectations to raise their achievement and transform their lives. As I read the book before institute in the spring of 2007, I too found it to be an inspirational story. A lot of the way I saw teaching and Teach for America changed during my first year, however, and this past week I decided to re-read the book to see how the story would look to me today.
I was surprised to find that three fourths of the book was not terrible; I expected to re-read it and find it full of blatant TFA propaganda. In fact, three of the stories, “Tanya,” “Roberto,” and “Douglas” were quite good. Roberto’s story documents the story of a relentlessly hard working English learner with a fierce drive to learn but who is so far behind in his basic writing skills that bringing him to grade level seems impossible. The emotional satisfaction of reading his first essay side by side with his final essay is quite powerful. I had a student like him in my class, and although I did not help my student make the same progress that Ms. Lora did, I know that I and many other people who have taught identify with the challenges of teaching students like him. Tanya’s story tells about a girl who lost her mother and whose ability to learn is challenged by her attention seeking behavior, and Douglas’s story tells about a boy with hyperactive and aggressive tendencies who does not seem to respond to any form of traditional learning or classroom management. All three of these stories focus heavily on the importance of building strong relationships with students; Ms. Lora has almost daily interaction with Douglas’s mother, goes out of her way to provide a sense of security to Tanya (including visiting her in the hospital), and spends extra time outside of class conversing with Roberto to get a better sense of his interests. This focus on the importance of teacher/student relationships in advancing student achievement is important for new corps members.
Douglas’s story ends up being the most affecting story in the book, in part because of the (maybe unintentional) light that it shines on the tragedy of high stakes testing. Douglas enters the fourth grade having been held back in the third grade three times due to his inability to pass the state’s required exam. Douglas’s mother refuses to place him in special education because she fears that it is a holding for students with behavioral problems and that it will destroy any remaining hope of him succeeding in school. Instead, Ms. Lora devotes herself to helping him pass the state test and move on to fifth grade, and over the long arc of the story Douglas begins to make visible academic and behavioral improvements. Unfortunately, he fails the test in spite of Ms. Lora’s and his mothers’ best efforts, and his story ends with him having to repeat the fourth grade. As I read this story again, I felt the pain of Douglas’s disappointment even more strongly than I did the first time. I know now what a monumental effort it can take for some students to succeed in school, and I can empathize with how devastating it could be to a student who had given their all only to find it meant nothing. A student like Douglas could have just received his final confirmation that striving for academic achievement is not worth the effort. For everyone who rails against “social promotion” (which I now generally support) , this story can provide a small window into the humiliation of being a teenager in the fourth grade. It would destroy anyone’s drive to work in school, mine included. Los Angeles Unified did not, and does not, base passing grades on test performance, and the decision to retain a student is left to the discretion of teachers, administrators, and parents. Retention at my school was rare, as most teachers and administrators agreed that in most students it did little to address the causes of student failure.
Where “Ms. Lora’s Story” sinks into the realm of deceptive TFA propaganda is in in its treatment of the story of Anthony, a student during Ms. Lora’s first year. Here we are introduced to the only veteran teacher in the book with a speaking role: Ms. Franklin. Ms. Franklin comes into Ms. Lora’s room on the first day to tell her that Anthony Vasquez is “dumb,” and attempts to mentor her on the harsh reality that nothing she can do will be able to help a student like him. Ms. Lora becomes determined to prove Ms. Franklin’s low expectations wrong, and works passionately to help Anthony succeed while others don’t believe in him. In the end, Anthony passes the state test along with 100% of the students in the class, the first time in the history of the elementary school (according to the book) that a class had gotten a 100% pass rate. The first problem with this story is the treatment of veteran teachers. Anyone who comes in to a school in their first year with minimal training and gets 100% of their students to pass the state test undoubtedly had some pretty knowledgeable veteran teachers helping them out, and any new corps members need to know that surviving the first year without the help of veterans is difficult to impossible. Unfortunately, the only veteran teacher that author Steven Farr chooses to introduce us to is the one who fits into the narrative that veteran teachers, as a group, have low expectations and that a passionate young teacher with high expectations is all that is needed to turn the students’ lives around. This treatment of veteran/corps member relationships threatens to fill new CMs with exactly the kind of arrogance that they should be striving to avoid. As it turns out, I knew a teacher like Ms. Franklin at my school who railed about the educational quality of South Central LA dropping after it got flooded with Latinos, and who called her students “idiots” and “monsters.’ I also knew about a dozen others who were hard-working and dedicated educators and who gave me crucial advice to help me salvage my year from complete disaster. I’m willing to bet that my twelve to one ratio of dedicated veterans versus asshole veterans is similar in most places, and therefore the story of the dedicated and helpful veterans is a more important story to be telling new corps members. Instead, TFA chooses to tell a story that fits better with its simple narrative that low expectations cause student failure and that high expectations are the remedy. Most people who have taught can attest that the real causes of why students fail are more complex. In the process, TFA disparages the majority of veteran teachers who are working hard to help students succeed.
An additionally concerning element of Anthony’s story is the fact that the story recounts Ms. Lora’s first year feat of achieving a 100% pass rate with her students without ever mentioning that this is exceptional for first year corps members. First year corps members need to be exposed to reality: they will likely struggle their first year, and there is a good chance that they will not see the kind of student growth that they would have liked to see. Simply going in to a school believing that their dedication and high expectations will bring their class to 100% proficiency is a dangerous fantasy for new CMs to nurture. Just because Aurora Lora in Houston got those results does not mean that those results are in any way typical. TFA has a duty to it’s new CMs to tell them this. Sadly, the Anthony story arc hurts the credibility of what is in many other ways a good book.