Teach For America and the Struggle for Urban School Reform: Searching for Agency in an Era of Standardization
reviewed by Candice Dawson - April 18, 2014
Title: Teach For America and the Struggle for Urban School Reform: Searching for Agency in an Era of Standardization
Author(s): Katherine Crawford-Garrett
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 1433123770, Pages: 137, Year: 2013
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Crawford Garretts Teach for America and the Struggle for Urban School Reform: Searching for Agency in an Era of Standardization provides a rich description of the inner battles Teach for America corps members found themselves when attempting to educate in an urban schooling environment. While Crawford-Garret offers a brief explanation on how Teach for America works, a more detailed description would have been beneficial when attempting to make sense of the preparation period for Teach for America corps members and some of the battles corps members faced. However, I appreciate the information given on the entrepreneurial support corps members received. This support was shocking to me, as this organization is placing recent college graduates in a career field in which they hold no experience but are expected to flourish. The majority of the support offered by Teach for America for corps members is placed in business, not education. I was left questioning what the end goal is supposed to be for these corps members, if not to be educators.
This text offers many benefits to teacher education: discussion of an alternative teaching program, use of participant stories and viewpoints, and discussions of research methods and the intentional role of the researcher. While there are areas which Crawford-Garrett could have expanded and done more with her research, overall this book is one which I deem a must read for all those considering programs such as Teach for America and the Academy for Urban School Leadership.
One strength of the book is the organization that Crawford-Garrett chose to study. Teach for America is a part of a growing number of alternative teaching programs and/or organizations that are constantly scrutinized. While exploring Teach for America through the eyes of its corps members is beneficial to the education literature, Crawford-Garrett does not offer much background on the organization itself. She offers a very brief description of what the organization is about, but fails to include more detailed information about how and why they prepare corps members in such a short time period, leaving the reader with additional questions.
Another strength of the book was the actual experience of the corps members themselves. Crawford-Garretts inclusion of the corps members experiences offers a fresh look and perspective on an already highly criticized industry of education. Throughout the book Crawford-Garrett shows us, through direct quotations, the lack of preparation and support the corps members receive. She shows us the everyday conflicts between compliance and the transference of knowledge. The giving and gaining of knowledge in the classroom was not only passive, but when the corps members were challenged to take a more active role in the pursuit of education to their students via inclusion of their cultures, environments, and applicable politics into the curriculum, many stressed uncertainty. Although the corps members repeatedly expressed their concerns about this passive, tailored education in the methods course they were giving their students, they did not want to disrupt the status quo of teaching. Feeling like failures and/or bad teachers, most corps members took Crawford-Garrets assignments in the methods course as a means to have the type of impact they wanted on their students education. The small groups and public classroom sharing built the corps members confidence, allowing them to depart from the tailored education they were supplying their students and give them ownership.
Like many other first-year teachers, the cohort of Teach for America corps members Crawford-Garrett studied entered a school undertaking a new reform addressing low-performing schools. I wonder if the findings of her study would have been different if conducted with a cohort that was not entering a school district putting out new initiatives. I would suggest a replication of the study with a cohort not entering an environment undergoing a massive change to see if this has any impact on the cohort and their teaching methods and willingness to try alternative methods.
The ethnographic, practitioner approach Crawford-Garrett took with the cohort of Teach for America corps members is highly commendable. She chose to consider these teachers not merely as individuals but also as member of particular groups who share certain experiences and practices. Their affiliation with Teach for America implies a shared set of cultural practices and beliefs (p. 7). Due to the interruption of mainstream teaching methods through various classroom assignments, Crawford-Garrett was constantly influencing the educational practice that the corps members exhibited in their prospective classrooms.
Crawford-Garretts intentional positioning as an observer and not as teacher or leader of the classroom left her students at times searching for answers. The students were not accustomed to this type of teaching and did not always know how to wrestle with their own experiences and perceptions of teaching. Crawford-Garrett admits to this struggle and her determination to remain in the background and not become the center of discussion. Additionally, I found the concept of asset-based language lacking a definition on which the reader could build. Being previously familiar with this concept helped me appreciate the intentional focus on this in the methods course and simultaneously left me looking for more explanation as to why the awareness of asset and deficit language in the classroom is so important. This was ground-breaking for the corps members, as some expressed their perceptions of the students (before they met them) as through a handicapped lens. Too often it is assumed that children who come from non-mainstream backgrounds are at risk just because they are from non-mainstream backgrounds (Flores, Cousin, & Diaz, 1991, p. 1).
Crawford-Garretts book is one which has many strengths, but she offers two major concepts which presented themselves early on in the text and seem to be the two main takeaways for the reader as well: authorized identities and Taylorism. These two concepts gave me insight into what the corps members and students alike were dealing with on a daily basis. Crawford-Garrett utilizes the concepts surrounding identity to later investigate the identities suddenly placed upon these students and their desire to conform and dismantle them simultaneously. This concept is one that should have been fleshed out more and with more connections to the narratives shared by the corps members. These identities are discussed in passing later in the text and can be easily overlooked, but turn out to be a major part of how and why the concept of Taylorism even arose amongst the corps members. The corps members quickly came to recognize “the ‘New Taylorism’, where their labour is controlled vis‐à‐vis high‐stakes testing and pre‐packaged, corporate curricula aimed specifically at teaching to the tests,” (Au, 2011, p.1).
The idea of struggling for urban school reform in a realm of standardization is relevant to the ideas in this text, and is substantiated when teachers are made to feel as if they have no ownership in the very knowledge that they are attempting to share and connect with their students. Overall, this book is a critically astute read and an important instrument not only for teacher educators and teachers alike, but also policy makers and all those interested in gaining perspective and insight into the mindset of a first-year teacher with little to no educational preparation for the classroom in an urban school reform epidemic.
Au, W. (2011). Teaching under the new Taylorism: high‐stakes testing and the standardization of the 21st century curriculum. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 43(1), 25-45.
Flores, B., Cousin, P. T., & Diaz, E. (1991). Transforming deficit myths about learning, language, and culture. Language Arts, 68(5), 369-379.