Monday, April 21

Relentless Pursuit

I keep thinking to myself that I should write more book reviews in here, and then never getting around to it. But this a book I feel I have a somewhat unique perspective on. Plus it just came out last week, so I can be an early reviewer :)

The book, Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach For America, is by journalist Donna Foote who followed four 2005 corps members in one high school in L.A. for one academic year. I pre-ordered the book right after reading Mr. AB's glowing review. My roommate thought I was crazy for wanting to spend free time reading more about TFA and teaching, but I was sucked in immediately and in the end it made me feel more connected to the organization and the mission, and less alone in how I'm feeling completing my first year of teaching for America. Locke High School and LA are about as different as can be from from St. Francis Indian School and the reservation, but they're also remarkably the same. I feel the same frustrations and see the same dysfunctions at my school as the four corps members in the book do.

It's good to know that other first years are hitting the same highs and the same horrible lows in their classrooms and in their lives. It's good to know that other teachers feel so extremely isolated, even in a huge urban center. Other teachers come into a class with no curriculum and no support from administrators. At one point one of the corps members says she could be playing paddy cake in her classes and no one would know. That's what I've been saying all year!!! Only I usually substitute underwater basket weaving or German for paddy cake....

The sections about the Program Director and his struggle to support corps members also hit home. PD's have a tough job. It was nice to know that other corps members out there struggle with the limited support TFA offers which sometimes just feels like an extra burden.

There are lengthy sections of the book about Wendy Kopp and the history of Teach For America as an organization. I'm personally fascinated with the organization and it's success, so I enjoyed those sections. I could imagine readers who were more interested in the teachers being bored by them, however. I knew that TFA is data driven and tracks everything, but reading a little of the behind the scenes drove home the extent to which data and tracking dictate everything.

At the end of the book there seems to be little hope left for the future of the school. The TFA alum who had come on as an idealistic administrator quits to become principal of a charter school. Locke High School's test scores remain awful and violence is on an upswing. The book does not paint a hopeful picture of failing schools. But for anyone out there who thinks there is any kind of quick fix for schools- read this book! I'm going to make my mom read it because she's a professor of project management and I feel like I can never fully explain to her why my school can't just be better managed. This book is the answer, the problems are so complex and pervasive it seems nearly impossible to pull a school out of the spiral of failure.

I almost wish that the book could have included corps members in other regions, especially rural regions, but by following only one school Foote is able to narrow in on the outside factors affecting the city, neighborhood and particular school which are indicative of the factors affecting all high needs districts, urban and rural.

In case you're interested, here are a few differences between TFA LA and TFA SD:
I can't go out to happy hour when I've had a rough day or week.
Going "out" one weeknights is a no-go, but themed house parties are far more plentiful.
Two other corps members work at my school, instead of 22. And 0 alums.
None of my classed are overcrowded.
My school is small, I am the only freshman English teacher, I don't have other teachers to collaborate with or literacy coaches to guide me.
I can't go home to my posh apartment on the nice side of town, I live in a FEMA trailer about 100 yards from school.
I can't unwind by driving to the beach and apparently winter here lasts until mid-April.
My students are all the same race- 99% Native.
Less violence- a few fights, but no guns or shootings and I almost never feel unsafe at school.
The only other people my age in a very large radius are also teachers, predominantly TFA.
I know every current South Dakota corps member (40-ish) and PD (only 1!)
TFA doesn't organize "excellent school visits" for us, I suppose because the nearest excellent school is 300 some miles away.

I tried to list similarities, but they are too numerous. Poverty in America is the same everywhere. Gangs, violence, drugs, broken families, anger, hostility, and hopelessness abound. Trapped in the ghetto or trapped on the rez, it's the same cycle of poverty and oppression and the same struggling schools unable to serve the population that needs an excellent education the most. **One similarity I nearly forgot to mention because to me it goes without saying, is the potential of the students. Black, Latino, or Native; inner city or reservation; they are all just as talented and capable as their wealthier peers when given the opportunity to learn, and there is no doubt that they deserve that opportunity.

I thought that reforming an inner city school would be more possible. After all, it seems like it would be easier to get awesome administrators and teachers to live and work in LA than it would be to get them to move out here, but as it turns out it's not. One thing Locke High School does get, however, is a whole lot more media attention and general awareness of it's existence. Multiple celebrities and high up school officials and politicians visit Locke, and now someone's written a book about it. In the end that may be what will turn urban schools around, enough attention will eventually draw charter schools and education reformers to make radical changes or provide alternative schools in the area.

But what will happen here? Does anyone even know that there is a small failing high school out here? Does anyone care? Who will ever swoop in to save it?

But I digress. A lot. Relentless Pursuit is excellent journalism and as far as my experience goes, portrays 'the good, the bad, and the ugly' (as the principal in the book says) of TFA with great depth and objectivity. Read the book.


Kathy said...

Hi Anne,
So, should I have my book club read this book?

Phil said...

I will definitely make it a point to read this book. I have a few issues with TFA, I'll admit, but it is clear that it gets a lot of smart and committed young adults to think deeply about the problems of our education system. From your perspective, is TFA succeeding in its mission? What do you think are potential solutions to the problems within American education?

Anonymous said...

Hi Anne-
Thanks for your helpful review. I read an excerpt from USNewsWR and was impressed by the similarities between Locke and St Francis. Based on the excerpt and your review, I plan to buy the book as an airplane read (and give it to Sarah's grandparents.)
Carol aka Sarah's mom