Welfare Schools and Psychoanalyzing Education Reformers

Conor P. Williams has a piece at 74 million that purports to be a simulation of what critics of Teach for America must be like. Apparently, in Wiliams’ view, they are coffee shop elite hipsters. As far as this genre of writing goes, Williams’ piece is not particularly funny, insightful, or well-executed. It comes off, like some of his other pieces, as Williams wanting to demonstrate that he and people like him are personally cool and heroic while those on the other side are actually the lame losers. It is a brand of ego-stroking akin to the guy who likes to play up the time he did a humanitarian spring break in Africa, not (only) because he wants to advocate humanitarian spring breaks to Africa, but also because he wants people to think he’s righteous for what he did.

I thought about doing a similar piece where I simulated what Teach for America enlistees are like. I knew people who signed up to TFA around the time that they did so, and so I have some ample material to work with. But instead of creating some fictionalized parody of the arch TFA participant, I’ll just tell you what I think directly. This account is based on people I’ve known and some speculation beyond that.

I think the typical TFA person is earnest about wanting to help poor kids. However, they are not very knowledgeable about what it is that poor kids are dealing with. I don’t mean that they haven’t experienced being a poor kid (though that’s true too). Rather, I mean that they aren’t familiar with the empirical facts about the ways in which material conditions majorly influence educational attainment and life outcomes.

The reason their interest in helping poor kids gets channeled into educational stuff is because the idea that education is the universal solvent of economic problems is the hegemonic ideology of the country. Additionally, the educational story we tell in our society matches what they have personally experienced (as people who’ve excelled academically). By living in this society, they also have probably heard “bad schools” talked about a lot, perhaps by their own parents.

Because they aren’t very knowledgeable, and the hegemonic tendency of the society is to emphasize education, it’s not surprising that the naive college student signs up to be a brave education warrior. It helps also that there is a huge amount of organization that exists to give them the ability to plug in to TFA and other education reform outlets. An earnest, but ignorant, college student who wants to help poor kids can fire off a TFA application on their own campus and get right into the fight (and as Williams shows, feel really good about doing so). Similar outlets don’t really exist for any other kind of cause (there is no Welfare State for America, for instance).

Once the naive college student gets plugged into education reform organization (and especially TFA), they are then path dependent on education reform. Some might defect, but for the most part, there is nothing you will ever be able to do to convince them to decide that they’ve basically been wasting their time. Nothing. They are going to be education/school guys to the very end.

One reason I think that this interpretation is true (which I’ll elaborate soon at Demos) is that the bizarre rise of what I call “welfare schools.” These are charter schools like the Harlem’s Children Zone whose chief innovation is that they’ve combined school with their own massive welfare system. Priscilla Chan, Mark Zuckerberg’s wife, has recently indicated that she is going to build her own welfare school in Palo Alto, explaining that she realized education alone wasn’t going to do much after she tried to help educate people dealing with serious poverty in Boston. Thus, she’s building a welfare school with “wraparound services” that educate the “whole child.”

I think welfare schools are a perfect example of my education reform “path dependency” theory (i.e. once you get on the educational reform path, there is no way to get you off of it). If you get into education early, as a naive undergraduate earnestly wanting to help poor kids, and then later figure out how important material determinants are, what you apparently end up doing is channeling you newfound welfare observations through the mechanism of school reform. Because you are all about reforming schools, the only thing that apparently occurs to you when you come upon this socioeconomic insight is that we have to make the schools so that they properly deal with the poverty problem (which means make the schools little welfare administrations).

Of course, not all education reform advocates have the capacity to make welfare schools. So others who got path dependent on the education line, but who also then become aware of material determinants, end up responding somewhat differently. They might point to the welfare schools or even occasionally agree that government welfare expansion is important, but they still ultimately focus on education. Education is how they started their interest in poor kids and nothing they can ever learn will cause them to switch away from it.

But imagine that the timing of their realizations about material determinants was different. Imagine if the arch TFA applicant had as deep a knowledge about the poverty-related problems when they were an undergraduate as they do now. How might their trajectory be different? It’s not hard to imagine that, armed with their knowledge about material determinants, they would have found the reform movement’s orientation lacking because it misses the root problem. They might even have criticized it for this reason. Instead of going into TFA, they might have instead decided that egalitarian political economy is what was really needed.

As I said at the top, this is speculation. But I don’t throw this out here only to troll. You see education reformers out there in the world who have an understanding of the influence of material factors on educational attainment, but that understanding seems to have come later rather than sooner. That is, they were already on that education reform path. I truly do wonder whether they would have found that path enchanting enough if they had that same knowledge in college. Perhaps, in that counterfactual world, they would have found themselves interested in welfare states rather than welfare schools.