Watching The West Wing: Teachers and Courts

I am midway through a weeks-long marathon of watching The West Wing. When I was young, my parents watched the show, and I often watched it with them. Most evenings I watched whatever prime time drama my parents were into, and my wife and I recently began to run through the whole show on Netflix. Aaron Sorkin’s tendency to plant teachable moments throughout what is a fairly fast-paced and often context-riddled dialogue – notorious both in The West Wing and The Newsroom – does two things: teach the intricacies of American politics, both complex and simple, to an audience that may not yet know the details of a filibuster or censure or pardon, and allows those who do know feel a sense of being an “insider” as they follow the main characters down familiar hallways.

Coincidentally, Alyssa Rosenberg at The Washington Post is also watching the show this summer, and wrote a smart piece on the personal politics of the show, focusing on the fact that the main characters’ “positions on policy are — at least initially — determined by their personal attachments.” She argues that “it’s an ingenious way to make viewers feel attached to policy debates. But it also lets the Bartlet administration, which was never terribly liberal in the first place, be guided much more by emotion than any particular partisan theory of government.” I suggest reading her article, as it looks at the show’s focus on personal relationships and on its discussion of media and personal lives.


But I have something else I’d like to focus on. In watching the senior staff of the Bartlet administration debate education, drug policy, war, and terrorism, I’m becoming more and more convinced that The West Wing obscures more than it reveals. While the script frequently teaches its audience about the inner workings of the White House and American politics in general, the descriptions and definitions it provides often preclude the viewer from making up her own mind about those very issues. The ideas proposed – recruiting more teachers, supporting international justice, decriminalizing marijuana, selling weapons to repressive regimes, etc. – are introduced not to educate but to show the viewer which one is right (or at least practical, for the latter two realpolitik situations).

The West Wing‘s take on the post-9/11 world is something I’ll have to set aside for another day (that subject will take much, much more time), but here I’m going to outline two specific scenes in seasons 2 and 3. I’m halfway through the show, so it’s very likely that more of these posts are coming. Without further ado, The West Wing, Teach for America, and the International Criminal Court.

Continue reading


Arizona State University of Starbucks

On Monday, Starbucks announced that it was launching a new program through which it will help many of its employees pay for undergraduate education at Arizona State University’s ASU Online program. Here are some of the details of how it would work:

Tuition for an online degree at ASU is about $10,000 a year, roughly the same for its traditional educational programs. For the freshmen and sophomore years, Starbucks and Arizona State say they will put around $6,500 on average toward the estimated $20,000 in total tuition.

To cover the remaining $13,500, workers would apply for financial aid. Since Starbucks workers don’t earn a lot of money, many would likely qualify for a Pell grant, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of, a website about paying for college. If a worker qualified for a full Pell grant of $5,730 a year — or $11,460 over the two years — he or she would theoretically be left with about $2,040 to pay out of pocket.

The program would work similarly for the junior and senior years, except that Starbucks would reimburse any money workers end up having to pay out of pocket. Starbucks said most of its workers have already started school, so could potentially finish off their degrees at no cost if they applied for the program.

At first, it piqued my interest to hear that ASU was involved in such a project. ASU has long been involved in efforts that purport to expand access to quality university education, but has also engaged in moves that collapse schools and programs (which eliminates jobs and takes power away from faculty), demote staff to the status of at-will employees, and continually raise tuition.

But agreeing to pay for employees’ education is a good move, even if it does nothing to salvage the crisis of public education. And yet there are hidden aspects of this deal that are important to shed light on. Firstly, the program hopes to offer a diverse education to Starbucks employees, but having the selection of majors offered at one university’s online wing is actually quite narrow. As this piece finds, even the students featured in an NYT article about the program may not actually be able to study what they want.

In addition, online-only education is not a tried-and-true provider of education, especially for working students who have not been exposed to higher education before. Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of education policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, linked to this 2011 study [pdf] on online education and its effectiveness for low-income and underprepared students by Shanna Smith Jaggers. In short, online classes saw more low-income and underprepared students withdraw, and many of these students were less likely to return to continue their education. Learning online is as much of a learned skill as learning in the classroom, only online degrees and courses often come with less support for students. I took at least four online classes while at ASU, and only one was as rigorous as in-person courses and provided similar levels of support.

But the more important point here is that Starbucks employees are not being offered free education at Arizona State University, my alma mater and an arguably decent school from which to earn a Bachelor’s. The Starbucks program funnels workers through ASU Online, a joint-venture between ASU and Pearson, the for-profit publishing and ed tech company. The venture overcharges online students, students who may be receiving less support and less freedom in their studies and cost the university less money, but who pay roughly the same tuition as on-campus students. As one article mentions:

Arizona State University Online, a revenue-sharing relationship between Pearson, a for-profit company best known as a publisher, and Arizona State University (ASU), yielded $6 million in profit in 2011 for ASU. Projections are that it will yield $200 million in profit by 2020. Many other non-profit colleges with large online programs tout the substantial profits generated by online programs that are re-invested in on-ground facilities. Thus, online students are being substantially overcharged to generate profits that subsidize face-to-face learners, faculty and administrators.

This type of revenue-sharing happens a lot at universities between departments (the humanities often subsidize the sciences), but the inclusion of a for-profit company makes this deal smell of something far worse. Pearson has long-been a part of the ed reform movement, standardizing and assessing real education into oblivion. That it operates as a “partner” in ASU Online is a shame and a sign of how the top echelons at ASU view education.

This agreement between ASU and Starbucks is supposed to be about providing free education to lower class workers. But according to Starbucks CEO, about 70% of Starbucks workers are current in college or aspire to go. These students, working at Starbucks across the country, will now have to transfer to ASU Online if they want to take advantage of their employers’ benefits – and Starbucks is eliminating its tuition reimbursement program for the City University of Seattle and Stayer University next year in order to commit to the ASU Online endeavor.

As Melissa Byrne points out, this is mostly as PR stunt for Starbucks, whose executives have come straight out and said that they hope this will attract a better class of workers. And ASU hopes to continue to expand its growing online presence and push President Michael Crow’s “New American University” vision one step further. For many of Starbucks’ workers, this program will expand access, but access to what? And what will happen when they fail to finish because they were pushed into a program that was ill-suited for them?

Update: Be sure to check out Tressie McMillan Cottom’s piece on this, in which she links ASU-Starbucks endeavor to what for-profit universities have been doing for decades.

Against Teach for America

I’ve never been a big fan of Teach for America, and in the last few years I’ve grown to downright hate the organization. And yet, I’ve never actually explicated about it on this, my more enduring venting platform. Now seems like the time, though, as a conference called Free Minds, Free People is organizing against TFA this summer. This is happening despite TFA’s broad popularity among education “reformers” and neoliberal bureaucrats that would love nothing more than to break teachers’ unions and privatize the education sector. Can you tell a rant is forming?

None of this is groundbreaking opinion if you’ve been paying attention to the education scene. Governments at all levels are tightening their purses when it comes to education, and public schools are doing what they can to continue teaching the students entrusted to them. And by doing what they can I mean by and large students are being funneled into giant classrooms where they’re being prepared for the next standardized test. Social studies took the brunt of the class size increases while English, math, and more recently science absorbed the standardized testing aspect. But right now the English classrooms and science labs are growing too, and there’s perennial talk of state-standardized social studies exams. And as this continues across the country, some states are working hard to shut down teachers’ unions and shuttering schools. Only now are we finally seeing resistance, but even this is a little defense against an onslaught of government and business efforts to radically alter education for the worse.

Enter Teach for America. Plucking college graduates from across the country, TFA throws them into a summer preparation course before placing them in some of the toughest communities in the country to serve students in dire need of a quality education. Instead, students on the margins are being taught by brand new, untested and unqualified teachers who have only committed to two years of teaching before they move on to graduate school in fields only tangentially related to education like administration, psychology, or business. The aim of the organization is to concentrate not on actually helping students in need but instead on providing top college graduates with experience before they move on to other fields.

Take, for example, a statistic my friend (a former TFA-er) told me: Teach for America has the same number of staff tasked with recruiting at Columbia University as it does tasked with organizing teacher placement for all of the New York City area. That number is two. You could also take this professor’s widely-shared reasoning for why he refuses to let TFA recruit in his classroom:

Never, in its recruiting literature, has Teach for America described teaching as the most valuable professional choice that an idealistic, socially-conscious person can make.  Nor do they encourage the brightest students to make teaching their permanent career; indeed, the organization goes out of its way to make joining TFA seem a like a great pathway to success in other, higher-paying professions.

Three years ago, a TFA recruiter plastered the Fordham campus with flyers that said “Learn how joining TFA can help you gain admission to Stanford Business School.”  The message of that flyer was “use teaching in high-poverty areas a stepping stone to a career in business.”  It was not only profoundly disrespectful to every person who chooses to commit their life to the teaching profession, it advocated using students in high-poverty areas as guinea pigs for an experiment in “resume-padding” for ambitious young people.

Treating youth in need as stepping stones to graduate school is but one of the major flaws with TFA. TFA’s woefully inadequate preparation for its teachers and tremendous lack of support for them is exacerbated by the fact that the two-year volunteers crowd out qualified teachers who are looking for work and create cracks in the fragile labor system that is teaching. I studied for four years and spent over 1000 hours teaching – including a semester in my own classroom – just to gain the experience and tools needed to be a good teacher, and even then I knew I had several years to go before I would be able to say that I excelled at the job. I’m desperate to get back in the classroom now solely because I want to continue that climb. But if I were to join TFA, I would be out the door and onto the next professional achievement outside the classroom before I could even get the hang of taking attendance. That is, of course, if I were accepted by TFA, which is notorious for rejecting people who want to be teachers and accepting future leaders in business and administration.

One former TFA-er reflected on the statistics of TFA teachers versus new, credentialed, trained teachers:

 Compare the performance of Teach For America corps members to another cohort: credentialed, non-TFA corps members. The same study indicates that novice TFA teachers actually perform significantly less well in reading and math than credentialed beginning teachers at the same schools. Keep in mind that to “perform significantly less well” as a teacher is quite literally to have a group of 10, 100, or even 200 students learn less than they would had you not been their teacher.

If you’re interested, you can read others’ thoughts on TFA here and here. While I think he gives a little too much credit to TFA, this former participanstill advocates for shuttering the program, citing the experience at his school:

The other problem is the wasted investment a school makes in a teacher who leaves after just a few years. Sadly, I’m a poster child for this. I remember my last day at my school in Colorado, as I made the rounds saying goodbye to veteran teachers, my friends and colleagues who had provided me such crucial support and mentorship. As I talked of my plans for law school in Chicago, and they bade me best wishes, I felt an overwhelming wave of guilt. Their time and energy spent making me a better teacher – and I was massively better on that day compared to my first – was for naught. The previous summer I had spent a week of training, paid for by my school, to learn to teach pre–Advanced Placement classes. I taught the class for a year; presumably, I thought, someone else would have to receive the same training – or, worse, someone else would not receive the same training. All that work on classroom management and understanding of the curriculum, all the support in connecting with students and writing lesson – it would all have to begin again with a new teacher. (Indeed, my replacement apparently had a nervous breakdown and quit after a few months. She was replaced by a long-term substitute who one of my former colleagues must write lesson plans for.)

This teacher goes on to inspect the budget of TFA and it reflects what was mentioned above: 40% of TFA money doesn’t even show up in the classroom. Keep in mind that a number of school districts hire TFA teachers instead of experienced, certified teachers who want to be teachers. As cities like Chicago move towards mass closings of schools and cities like Philadelphia privatize their school districts, and teachers that remain employed in the schools that remain open find themselves saddled with excess work that stresses the system to its breaking point, TFA is breaking apart teachers – the only group still working to actually educate students. It’s efforts like this, aimed at keeping needy students in the margins in order to benefit elite future business and law school students while our school systems crumble, that tears me up. Teaching is my absolute passion, and I’m sitting here watching the whole education system torn down by TFA, by high-stakes testing, by No Child Left Behind, by Race to the Top, by reformers, by administrators, by governments. But these groups and objects have operated all as one. As Andrew Hartman explains, in a brilliant look at TFA:

TFA, suitably representative of the liberal education reform more generally, underwrites, intentionally or not, the conservative assumptions of the education reform movement: that teacher’s unions serve as barriers to quality education; that testing is the best way to assess quality education; that educating poor children is best done by institutionalizing them; that meritocracy is an end-in-itself; that social class is an unimportant variable in education reform; that education policy is best made by evading politics proper; and that faith in public school teachers is misplaced.


Successful charter schools, [TFA founder Wendy] Kopp maintains, also stop at nothing to remove bad teachers from the classroom. This is why charter schools are the preferred mechanism for delivery of education reform: as defined by Kopp, charter schools are “public schools empowered with flexibility over decision making in exchange for accountability for results.” And yet, “results,” or rather, academic improvement, act more like a fig leaf, especially in light of numerous recent studies that show charter schools, taken on the whole, actually do a worse job of educating students than regular public schools. Rather, crushing teacher’s unions—the real meaning behind Kopp’s “flexibility” euphemism—has become the ultimate end of the education reform movement. This cannot be emphasized enough: the precipitous growth of charter schools and the TFA insurgency are part and parcel precisely because both cohere with the larger push to marginalize teacher’s unions.


From its origins, the TFA-led movement to improve the teacher force has aligned itself with efforts to expand the role of high-stakes standardized testing in education. TFA insurgents, including Kopp and Rhee, maintain that, even if imperfect, standardized tests are the best means by which to quantify accountability. Prior to the enactment of Bush’s bipartisan No Child Left Behind in 2001, high-stakes standardized testing was mostly limited to college-entrance exams such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). But since then, the high-stakes testing movement has blown up: with increasing frequency, student scores on standardized exams are tied to teacher, school, and district evaluations, upon which rewards and punishments are meted out. Obama’s “Race to the Top” policy—the brainchild of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the former “CEO” of Chicago Public Schools—further codifies high-stakes testing by allocating scarce federal resources to those states most aggressively implementing these so-called accountability measures. The multi-billion dollar testing industry—dominated by a few large corporations that specialize in the making and scoring of standardized tests—has become an entrenched interest, a powerful component of a growing education-industrial complex.

Teach for America. High-stakes testing. Charter schools. Union-busting. School-closing. It’s all part of the same, terrible effort to throw our education system in the trash, and I’m glad to see more people resisting. With the economy making its slow climb out of the recession, many states are gaining or expecting surpluses. Schools are right to demand that this money go into education and not into privatizing more of our public goods. Teachers are organizing, and hopefully it isn’t too little, too late. The fight’s just starting, but – with hope – we can save our schools.