David Letterman and Teach For America

David Letterman is a legendary figure in comedy and television. He recently received the highest honor an American performer can be given at the 35th Annual Kennedy Center Honors in Washington D.C.

From the Kennedy Center website:

In 1992 he received the Peabody Award for taking “one of TV’s most conventional and least inventive forms…and infusing it with freshness and imagination.” In 1981, he won two Daytime Emmy Awards as writer and host for his first show, a quickly canceled morning variety ratings disaster on NBC called The David Letterman Show. In 1982, his second try for TV stardom, Late Night with David Letterman, premiered on NBC, injecting into the late-night landscape an unconventional, bold and eccentric brand of craziness. Television—and American comedy—has never been the same since. A decade later, Letterman’s third network show, Late Show with David Letterman, made its debut on CBS, quickly becoming one of the most talked-about and critically acclaimed programs of the year. For more than 30 years, there has hardly been a TV season in which Letterman has not been either nominated for or won an Emmy Award, amassing an unbelievable 51 nominations and 5 wins.

The top ten list is a hallmark of his show. On Friday May 10th, the list was the “Top Ten Reasons I’ve Decided To Become a Teacher.” Sometimes, instead of reading the list himself, Letterman has guests present the top ten.

He introduced that night’s presenters, “ten brand new teachers from Teach For America…By the way Teach For America recruits recent grads and mid career professionals to teach in public schools in high need communities.”

The Donors section of Teach For America’s website reads like a who’s who in corporate America, easily allowing one to question the intent and motivation behind TFA. They have eight sections of donors: Lifetime Donors (Foundations and Individuals); Lifetime Donors (Corporations); National Growth Fund Investors; Champion Investors; National Corporate Partners, Supporters, and Sponsors; Public Funders; Annual Donors (Foundations and Individuals); and Annual Donors (Corporations). Each section is further divided by donation amounts, ranging from thousands of dollars to many millions.

Just a brief sampling:

Lifetime Donors (Foundations and Individuals)

-The Walton Foundation – $50 million+

-Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – $10 million – $24,999,999

-The Anschutz Foundation, The Goldman Sachs Foundation, The Newark Charter School Fund – $1 million – $9,999,999

Lifetime Donors (Corporations)

-Wells Fargo – $15 million+

-Visa Inc. – $5 million – $14,999,999

-Bank of America, ExxonMobil Foundation, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase – $2.5 million – $4,999,999

-Monsanto Fund, Chevron Corporation, GE Foundation, The Prudential Foundation, The Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc. – $1 million – $2,499,999

Champion Investors

-The Walton Family Foundation – $5 million+

-Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Anschutz Foundation, Wells Fargo – $1 million – $4,999,999

National Corporate Partners, Supporters, and Sponsors

-Wells Fargo, Visa, Inc. – $1 million+

-Goldman Sachs – $250,000 – $499,999

Public Funders (having provided $1 million or more in fiscal year 2011)

-AmeriCorps, Arizona Office of the Governor, Baltimore City Public Schools, NASA,

-State of Colorado, State of Mississippi, State of Texas, and the U.S. Department of Education

From Andrew Hartman, in Jacobin Magazine:

The history of TFA (Teach For America) reveals the ironies of contemporary education reform. In its mission to deliver justice to underprivileged children, TFA and the liberal education reform movement have advanced an agenda that advances conservative attempts to undercut teacher’s unions. More broadly, TFA has been in the vanguard in forming a neoliberal consensus about the role of public education—and the role of public school teachers—in a deeply unequal society.

TFA is, at best, another chimerical attempt in a long history of chimerical attempts to sell educational reform as a solution to class inequality. At worst, it’s a Trojan horse for all that is unseemly about the contemporary education reform movement.

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.

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… 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.

TFA exists for nothing if not for adjusting poor children to the regime otherwise known as the American meritocracy.

In this age of austerity, the inadequate resources for already underfunded schools are slashed even more, and many cities are closing public schools while charter schools proliferate. The Buena Vista School District in Michigan has fired every teacher and closed every school. In Chicago, 54 schools are set to be closed. From Mychal Denzel Smith in The Nation:

They differ greatly in size, but what Buena Vista and Chicago have in common is that the populations most affected by these school closings just happen to be mostly black. Buena Vista is home to just under 7,000 residents, 74 percent of whom are black. In Chicago, where black students make up about 40 percent of those enrolled, 88 percent of those who would be displaced by these school closings are black.

From P.L. Thomas, in his Op-Ed “Education Reform In The New Jim Crow Era:”

There are significant parallels between the war on drugs and market-oriented education reform, and both create an underclass – especially among African American males, according to Thomas, who traces the history.

Teach For America is a piece of the “education reform” movement’s agenda, privatizing public education in lockstep with their corporate and political ilk; closing public schools, firing teachers and bashing unions, the increasing reliance on high stakes testing, etc. How much progress could have been made if the amount of money, resources, time, and effort put forth under the ruse of “education reform” were instead focused on alleviating poverty, truly improving public education, and fighting for social justice?

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