Is Teach For America’s training problematic?

WGBH reports that,

TFA training draws in part on Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion method, featured in the recent bookBuilding a Better Teacher. Teach Like a Champion emphasizes carefully and consistently controlling students’ words, postures and reactions from moment to moment. At Ranson Middle School, I saw posters of SLANT. That’s a Teach Like a Champion acronym for Sit up, Listen, Ask and answer questions, Nod your head, and Track the speaker.

Does Teach Like a Champion (TLAC) pedagogy perpetuate a racial hierarchy?

TLAC claims it is a “proven” pedagogy that is rooted in education equity because it puts marginalized students on a “path to college,” but is it, instead, racist? All pedagogies have Explicit, Hidden, and Null teachings that either threaten injustice or perpetuate it; there is never a neutral. In using seemingly innocuous strategies such as “cold calling” or “SLANT,” TLAC author Lemov believes that students are learning how to succeed in the academic world which, to him and supporters, is education justice. Embedded in TLAC pedagogy, though, are many oppressive messages that need to be examined no matter how effective they are at raising test scores. And frankly, higher test scores may lead to college, but do they truly result in college and life success in a racist and classist world?

Employed in segregated schools across the country, Lemov’s simple strategies often come with punitive consequences, unquestionable compliance, required assimilation and feelings of shame for marginalized students and those with learning differences. Learning to play the dominant culture game is imperative for marginalized students, but one can teach students how to play the game without making them become the game. Assimilation may lead to academic success, but it is dehumanizing. Dr. Maria Salazar once wrote,

“My teachers taught me the essentials: reading, writing, and math. However, I never saw myself reflected in the content or context of my schooling . . . I was overwhelmed with feelings of shame over the most essential elements of my humanity: my culture, my heritage, my language, and my parents.  I learned to read, write, and do math … it came at a heavy cost.”

It is true that rigorous education is not, by definition, a White, male, straight, affluent thing, but a rigorous education that forces compliance and teaches certain behaviors as the one right way to be is oppressive. For example. SLANT is not the only right way to learn; it is uncomfortable, inauthentic, and distracting for many learners (especially those with sensory processing disorders or ADHD for example).  Unsuccessful answering in cold calling does not mean one has not mastered content. Making every second count (Give 100% 100% of the time) is not how most successful people learn and live in this world. It is an unrealistic expectation that is not healthy and should not be expected of marginalized students (or anyone for that matter) for their success. These ways of being and doing in education may seemingly work to provide order and achievement. They may be said to provide structure for learning and look “scholarly,” but what are the lived results of this pedagogy beyond test scores and college entrance? Essentially, what is the cost and is it worth the benefits? Says who?

Questioning TLAC can result in one being called a racist, classist educator who wants to subvert black academic excellence and keep people poor.  But that is simply false; no critical educator questioning TLAC wants to revert back to a traditional racist pedagogy that inspired education reform. They also, however, do not want to replace one racist/classist pedagogy for another. TLAC sincerely tries to eliminate the achievement gap and give all students a chance to go to college, but it pedals a pedagogy that, in the end, maintains White supremacy.  J. Berkshire talks about this in her post, Teach Like It’s 1895:

“As I was reading Teach Like A Champion, I observed something that shocked me. The pedagogical model espoused by Lemov is disturbingly similar to one that was established almost a century ago for the express purpose of maintaining racial hierarchy.”

Consider the following and then read more by J. Berkshire to see if you agree.

1. TLAC strategies are not proven using empirical methodology and published in peer reviewed journals. If there are studies, what are the variables? n? p value?

2. TLAC is for “Other people’s children” (L. Delpit). Of course some TLAC strategies are effective and even fun, but the strict adherence to TLAC as a bible for teaching is reserved for students of color and low SES.

3. Putting marginalized students on a “path to college” is different then educating them to have the critical consciousness, positive socio-cultural identity, and academic skills/knowledge to successfully COMPLETE college. (G. Ladson Billings)

4. Many TLAC strategies do not often work for students with learning differences. Example: cold calling does not maintain the dignity of nor the learning needs for ELLs or students with processing/language disorders. (A Kohn)

Also read J. Berkshire’s analysis:

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See all of Cloaking Inequity’s posts about Teach For America here.

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