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Spring 2003
 
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Shoot the Messenger

To the editor:
The title of Joshua Kaplowitz’s article in your Winter 2003 issue, “How I Joined Teach for America—and Got Sued for $20 Million,” is misleading and irresponsible. It gives the false impression of a causal relationship between Teach for America (TFA) and the $20 million suit. Nothing in the article supports this conclusion.

As a long-term supporter of TFA, I know many of its teachers and alumni. I am impressed that so many of these young leaders succeed in helping their students make significant academic gains despite the challenges they face. In fact, other corps members placed at Emery Elementary while Kaplowitz was there—who got the same training and support that he did—achieved high levels of success.

I am encouraged by TFA’s ability to learn both from its successes and its shortcomings and to refine its model for selecting, training, and supporting its teachers. Today, individuals are not accepted into this very competitive program unless they have demonstrated that they assume a high level of responsibility in overcoming challenges—something that TFA has found to be a key indicator of success.

Kaplowitz’s experience should neither be held up as a bellwether for teaching in the public schools nor should it diminish our belief in the potential that all children possess. I urge you to give equal space to one of the thousands of TFA corps members who have succeeded in equally challenging environments so that we can all learn some real lessons in how to improve public education and afford greater opportunities to all children.

Edith B. Everett
New York, NY

To the editor:
Joshua Kaplowitz’s article brought upon me a new level of disgust. I don’t speak for the organization, but as someone experienced with TFA, I would like to ask Kaplowitz if he remembers the TFA ideal, the motto that fuels our entire movement: “One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” That’s all children, not just the ones who have had teachers and parents who cared enough to refer them to alternative schools. Students who have not had the advantages of people who care are the ones who need the most help, and those are the children TFA aims to serve. That’s why you were sent to Emery, because it’s a school where a teacher ready for anything is needed. Unfortunately, you were not that teacher.

Let me elaborate my argument by telling you that I find absolutely no logic in your assignment of blame for your failure to live up to your TFA commitment (to improve the lives of these kids under any and all circumstances) on everyone but yourself. Let’s assume that everyone you blame actually deserves it; it should then follow that nearly all of TFA’s corps members would have been sued for some reason or another—and certainly everyone in the D.C. school district! It should follow that nearly all corps members would be ill-prepared and detrimental to their schools. It should follow that after Principal Savoy’s removal, Emery would get better. It should follow that if settlements from suing teachers and schools were this easy to come by, then everybody would be flocking to the courts.

Did any of this happen? In fact, three out of four school principals surveyed rated TFA teachers above average when compared with other beginning teachers; in fact, 97 percent of principals reported they would hire corps members again; 89 percent felt that corps members had a positive impact on students overall and on their academic achievement; and 70 percent thought corps members outperformed the overall faculty at their schools. In fact, after Principal Savoy was replaced, you said yourself that the school did not improve. And if in fact there were a rash of fabricated allegations, the statistical research would appear in educational literature to serve as a warning to teachers nationwide, which it has not.

The lesson to be learned by this exercise in emperical [sic] logic, Mr. Kaplowitz, is that you and you alone have failed to accomplish what you agreed to, and that while some responsibility may rest with the students you failed, the principal who hired you, and the organization that trained you, the bulk of the blame you must bear yourself.

Emery Elementary School is real. This is the world some children (I would say “our” children, but I’m sure your newborn will not end up in one of these God-forsaken places) live and breathe in. You were placed there to correct the situation to the best of your ability, and either your ability or your execution came up short. As for the charges brought against you, I have no doubt that you were innocent, and I empathize. But let this be a lesson not of your victimization under these circumstances, but of the level of seriousness with which we must face corporal punishment, child abuse, school inteverention [sic] and the family, and if nothing else, the ultimate success of the criminal justice system, even if only in this case. And if I may reiterate, your story shouldn’t assign blame unless you are willing to accept the better part of it yourself.

Alex Teh
TFA Campaign Coordinator
University of Georgia

To the editor:
Joshua Kaplowitz claims to have fallen innocent victim to the hostile culture of an inner-city school. I taught two doors down from Joshua at Emery Elementary. While I applaud his courage in revealing the school’s institutional breakdown, his story is incomplete and misleading—and ultimately buries children in the wreckage of his pride.

Josh and I were among four TFA teachers who began at Emery in the fall of 2000. We faced enormous challenges that year—administrative turnover, lack of school discipline—and we all experienced them to some degree. But we responded in different ways. Some teachers channeled their anger to ensure that their students realized significant academic gains despite the chaotic conditions. Two TFA teachers that year were finalists for the Washington, D.C., First Year Teacher of the Year Award. The circumstances Josh describes only partially account for his failure as a teacher.

I won’t pretend to know what happened inside Josh’s classroom, but I did witness an event he leaves out of his article: Josh yelling in the face of a lone student in the hallway, his hands on the student’s shoulders, shoving him against the wall. If you believe Josh’s account that the allegations against him were total fabrications and that his physical contact was limited to breaking up fights, think again.

Josh’s negative portrayal crystallizes the stereotypes that continue to plague our inner-city students and families. The subjects of his prose have become anonymous casualties in a cycle of blame, a cycle that risks weakening our collective commitment to public education by replacing it with hopelessness and fear.

Knowing that teachers succeed in even the most challenging environments, we should recognize Josh’s article for what it is: a distraction, appealing to the politics of failure rather than building toward a future of achievement.

Nicholas J. Ehrmann
2000 TFA Corps Member

To the editor:
I applaud Joshua Kaplowitz and other idealistic and hardworking young people who are interested in joining the teaching profession. I am sorry to say, though, that TFA is a bad fit for such people, as it’s founded on the absurd premise that some social benefit can be derived from having “elite” college graduates spend two years at inner-city schools before embarking on their real careers. Teaching is a job with a steep learning curve. It doesn’t matter how smart and well prepared a new teacher is—he is going to struggle for a few years. Anyone interested in becoming a teacher needs to be willing to sign up for the long haul.

Richard W. Bray
San Dimas, CA

To the editor:
I can agree with much of what Joshua Kaplowitz wrote. As a director of special education and an adjunct university professor, I have taught several TFA teachers in the area of behavior management. I’ve seen Ivy League graduates wiped out by their experiences with their students. Nothing had prepared them for what they faced. TFA had given them the impression that if they worked hard and wanted it bad enough, the child would welcome the opportunity to learn. That’s like telling someone if they wish hard enough for a car to run, it will. Teaching is not just desire—no matter how driven you are.

Joshua’s comments about parental influence are quite true. He taught in a situation where education was not valued—not even by the principal. The D.C. school system should be penalized for letting such a situation persist.

It takes only one class to respond to you to feel the magic of teaching. I can’t express the thrill of meeting a teacher I had taught—in Walmart, of all places—who introduced me to her family as the professor who changed her life. I wish Joshua that joy.

Dr. Pam Williford
Via e-mail

Joshua Kaplowitz responds:
I am disappointed that so many of the negative responses to my article ignore my most important points and instead attack me personally. I had intended to show that, at Emery, novice and veteran teachers alike were hindered in their efforts to teach by an incompetent and aimless administration that was unwilling to support its instructors or impose strict and consistent discipline. Without this discipline, the violence and neglect that characterized many of my students’ home lives invaded the school. Ultimately, a few unruly students and parents were allowed to plunge the entire school into chaos and ruin the education of the majority. These observations cut against the prevailing wisdom that more teachers, more money, and more cultural sensitivity are what’s needed to make inner-city schools work. If that were so, it would have happened already.

Ms. Everett misinterprets my title in assuming that juxtaposition necessarily implies causation. (Denis Dutton of Arts & Letters Daily caught the sense of it: in linking to my article, he ended his précis “A noble ideal, a sad story.”) Ms. Everett seems to have been assured by TFA that they will better filter out the future Josh Kaplowitzes—those who can’t “overcome the challenges” of inner-city teaching. But as long as TFA continues to preach that teachers alone can overcome those challenges, more disillusioned corps members will follow—as Dr. Williford attests.

The most vitriolic attacks, ironically, have come from those who you’d think would empathize with my struggles: TFA teachers like Messrs. Teh and Ehrmann.

Setting aside Mr. Teh’s bizarre, rambling “logic,” his letter exemplifies the prevailing TFA attitude that failure must be the teacher’s fault. I certainly made mistakes as a teacher. But I went to Emery to try to make a positive difference in the lives of “all [the] children” there, only to learn that not all of them were interested.

Mr. Ehrmann grants that other factors besides my own failings were at play in my students’ dismal performance but insists that other teachers were able to overcome those circumstances. Perhaps Nick was a more creative and effective teacher than I. Perhaps he reached more of his students in that magical way that Dr. Williford describes. I applaud Nick’s success, but it was born of very different circumstances than my own.

What’s more, Nick left Emery after two years, shepherding his students to Hyde School, the charter school I described in my article. Perhaps if Nick had stayed at Emery for Mr. Bray’s “long haul,” he could have reached more kids—maybe even all of them. But for Nick, too, Emery was an undesirable place.

Nick’s creativity is evidenced by the dramatic license with which he describes a hallway incident I omitted from my article—far more exciting in his retelling than in reality. Nick fails to mention that he, too, was accused of corporal punishment by an Emery student. I adduce this fact not to suggest that Nick physically abused his students—a slanderous insinuation, which I for one will not entertain—but to illustrate for Mr. Teh that such false allegations are more common than he admits.

I could have written a 5,000-word essay on my mistakes as a first-year teacher (and I might yet). I accept reponsibility for all of them. But my piece focused on my school and its students, who are immersed in a culture where education is not valued, where violence and lawlessness are the rule, and where the school administration refuses to draw the line. What Nick Ehrmann chooses to call “stereotypes” are the reality at Emery. If I’m to be branded a heretic by the TFA corps for pointing out these problems, the “one day” when “all children will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education” promises to be a long way off.

Facing the Facts on Feminism

To the editor:
Why Feminists Are AWOL on Islam” [Winter 2003] ignores facts. Feminists have been working for women’s freedom all around the world, ever since the idea of equality emerged into consciousness. How many “feminists” do you think there are? How many hours a day do you think we have, after earning a living and caring for our families, to devote to The Cause? What makes you think that because you have not seen feminists on the evening news—not even CNN—working to help Islamic women get the most basic of human rights, that they—we—aren’t doing so? When the military-industrial complex wanted an excuse to invade Afghanistan, pictures of oppressed women were all over the networks, and producers looked up “feminist” in their Rolodexes to find someone to agree that female oppression was a Bad Thing and that Something Should Be Done. As soon as the pre-Taliban warlords were restored, how they treat their female fellow citizens ceased to matter to the media.

Well, it still matters to us—ordinary women who marched for our rights in the 1970s and who have been signing petitions and raising money and writing letters to the editor ever since. Do you understand that if the American and British governments make Islamic oppression of women a casus belli, it will become a matter of patriotic and religious virtue for Islamic men to oppress their women? And men who do not do so will be accused of treason and blasphemy? Women’s rights must come in the context of human rights, as the U.N. has recognized (at least on paper), and they must be defended by Muslims whose interpretation of the Qur’an supports them. WWIII fought as a crusade against Islam will set Muslim women back two generations—if it doesn’t incinerate us all. Already America’s run-up to war has pushed “women’s issues” out of sight, and political punditry is now back to 90 percent male.

Geralyn Horton
Via e-mail

To the editor:
It was gratifying to read Kay S. Hymowitz enumerate so thoroughly the abuses suffered by women in the Islamic world—indeed, the magnitude of these outrages can never be overstated. However, I was stupefied at the flat-out obliviousness of her question, “Where are the demonstrations, the articles, the petitions, the resolutions, the vindications of the rights of Islamic women by American feminists?” followed by her blanket assertion that “feminists [have] refused to touch this subject. They have averted their eyes from the harsh, blatant oppression of millions of women.”

Is she kidding? Wherever does Hymowitz look when she wants to gauge the feminist zeitgeist? It can’t be the Internet, because sitting at my computer I was already cognizant of, and sufficiently outraged by, every injustice Hymowitz itemized in her piece. How? By idly surfing various feminist websites. Does Hymowitz perhaps not have the Internet? Then she could pick up Ms. magazine. True, it’s been criticized for the same white, middle-class propensities Hymowitz claims have hamstrung the movement, but it’s always tried to provide a solid overview of feminist issues around the world—including the Islamic world.

“Do your research” is too elaborate a corrective for an essay like this one. “Open your eyes” would be a solid first step.

Lynn Coady
Via e-mail

To the editor:
Thanks for the most rational and lucid exposition on the subject of contemporary feminism I have read.

Laurie Fendrich
Via e-mail

Kay S. Hymowitz responds:
After 9/11, as news of the stunning mistreatment of women under Islamic fundamentalism filled the media, feminists had an extraordinary opportunity to appeal to a vast number of Americans who had never had much interest in their movement. They chose not to do that. The question my article set out to answer was why.

Ms. Coady denies my premise and suggests that I peruse feminist websites and Ms. magazine for proof of ongoing feminist attention to the plight of their Muslim sisters. I have done so once more and find no reason to change my thesis. With the important exception of the women of Afghanistan, whose suffering the Feminist Majority has covered for many years (as my article mentioned), feminists are more interested in playing politics and expressing resentment toward Western men than in promoting rights and freedom. True, NOW posts several post-9/11 articles denouncing the oppression of Muslim women—by Americans, whose tendency toward racism and hate crimes is evidently far worse than the stonings and beatings required under shari’a law. And Ms. magazine ran an article by Nigerian columnist Isioma Daniel, forced to leave her country after Islamic fundamentalists threatened her life for writing favorably about the Miss World contest that was to be held in Nigeria. Did the editors have Daniel write about the fanatics who endangered her and so many of her countrywomen? No, they asked her to cover a group of Nigerian women protesting against the poor working conditions and environmental havoc allegedly caused by Chevron Texaco.

In other words, feminists are too taken up with their hatred of Western “patriarchy” and capitalism—and too ignorant of the democratic institutions and open economies that have secured their freedoms—to grapple seriously with a radical Islamic fundamentalism bent on enslaving its own women and destroying those in the West. Thus, Ms. Horton believes that “the military-industrial complex” needed an “excuse” to invade Afghanistan, as if the murder by Taliban-supported jihadis of 3,000 Americans and the promise of more to come wouldn’t do. Meanwhile, Ms. magazine calls attention to what one writer in December 2001 described as “striking and disturbing parallels between global capitalism and fundamentalist terrorism.”

This denial of oppression and the broader threat to which it is linked may satisfy Ms. Coady and Ms. Horton; it probably won’t do much to inspire the majority of American women, who already didn’t want to be called “feminist.”

Famous Tragedy, Fading Memory

To the editor:
I was grateful for Christopher Gray’s “Gotham Tragedy, Gotham Memory” [Winter 2003], but couldn’t help but be disappointed at the failure to mention the Manhattan monument to those lost on the General Slocum.

True, it is not the easiest monument to find: a modest stele just north of the field house in Tompkins Square Park. Its small fountain consists of a lion-mask spout pouring into a decorated basin. Above the fountain, one can see an eroded relief of a seated girl and a boy standing with a hoop and rod. The raised relief inscription: They Were Earth’s Purist Children, Young and Fair. . . .

On June 15, 1904, an outing of Saint Mark’s Lutheran Church embarked on the General Slocum from an East River pier for a trip north to Long Island Sound. The day trippers numbered 3,400—mostly children in the care of a few adults. The steamboat caught fire and foundered off the Bronx coast with nearly 1,200 lost. It remains one of the deadliest fires and the deadliest maritime disaster during peacetime in American history. Until September 11, 2001, it stood as the worst disaster in New York City history.

The tragedy is known around the world by virtue of its being recorded in James Joyce’s Ulysses, the tale of Leopold Bloom’s day-long Dublin odyssey on June 16, 1904—“Bloomsday.” That day, Dublin papers screamed of the disaster that is today so humbly commemorated in Tompkins Square.

Henry Hope Reed
Classical America

Planners’ Visions

To the editor:
As so many City Journal articles have done in the past, I hope Howard Husock’s “How Public Housing Harms Cities” [Winter 2003] starts policymakers thinking about the pernicious impact of public housing. Having grown up in Coney Island—a neighborhood now frozen in a slow, glacial decline—I know how public housing not only condemns its residents (with rare exceptions) to dysfunctional lives of poverty and crime, but destroys the very “communities” the housing is supposed to help.

In the 1950s and 60s, Coney Island was a working-class neighborhood of privately owned two- and three-family houses. The summer bungalows from decades earlier had been converted to year-round use. The nearby neighborhoods of Bensonhurst, Sheepshead Bay, and Gravesend certainly had higher status—as did Sea Gate, Manhattan Beach, and even the pre-Russian Brighton Beach. Still, Coney Island had its own business district, supported several houses of worship, and almost certainly generated more tax revenue than it consumed.

Robert Moses’s urban planning ended all that. Rather than allow the market to work, which likely would have resulted in developers buying up the cheap old bungalows to build new two-family houses, the city chose planned renewal. The Gravesend Houses opened in 1954, and Coney Island Houses’ five Stalinesque towers opened a few years later. At first, the neighborhood was unaffected. Then, in the mid-60s, two massive Mitchell-Lama projects—Amalgamated Warbasse Houses and Trump Village—went up in the area near Brighton Beach. Displaced low-income families moved into a declining Coney Island. Builders, aware of the city’s long-term plans, steered clear of investing in the area.

Many of my parents’ neighbors moved elsewhere in Brooklyn. Some moved to the new projects. With the city as landlord—i.e., with no one keeping an eye on the properties or the low-income tenants relocating to them—crime soared. My parents stayed until their home was condemned for urban renewal in 1973. They received $15,000 for a three-family brick house that had been renovated in 1960. Even in 30-year-old dollars, that’s less than half of what a similar house would have brought in surrounding areas. But why would the city pay more? It had already ruined the neighborhood.

Evan Cooper
Via e-mail

To the editor:
Theodore Dalrymple’s “Barbarians at the Gates of Paris” [Autumn 2002] says more elegantly than I can what I have long seen in my role as a criminal prosecutor in the U.S. The housing-project pathology would seem to be universal (though I’ve never seen the Japanese ones).

If a mad scientist in the 1950s wanted to create a system to alienate, degrade, and ultimately destroy an entire class of people, housing projects would have fit the bill.

Finally—if you’re not familiar with it—“The Planster’s Vision,” by Sir John Betjeman:

    Cut down that timber! Bells too many and too strong,
    Pouring their music through the branches bare,
    From moon-white church-towers down the windy air,
    Have pealed the centuries out with Evensong.
    Remove those cottages, a huddled throng!
    Too many babies have been born in there,
    Too many coffins, bumping down the stair,
    Carried the old their garden paths along.
    I have a Vision of The Future, chum,
    The workers’ flats in fields of soya beans
    Tower up like silver pencils, score on score:
    And Surging Millions hear the Challenge come
    From microphones in communal canteens
    “No Right! No Wrong! All’s perfect, evermore.”

H. C.
Via e-mail

Ashes on Ashes

To the editor:
I recently had the pleasure of reading City Journal for the first time—your Autumn 2002 issue. A melancholy experience: your proposal for the World Trade Center site [“The Downtown Redevelopment Flop”; “What Should Rise from the Ashes?” (Autumn 2001)] is breathtaking—easily the most beautiful and inspired of all.

Libeskind’s proposal is lachrymal trash, designed to appeal to the worst, most pernicious impulses of modern architecture. It blows my mind that the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) is going to build ashes on ashes; and that Franck Lohsen McCrery’s plan didn’t—couldn’t—find its way into the competition. Its beauty seems so fundamental. It understands the city—a city I once called home: simple, elegant, liveable. I suspect that most Americans—even those who have never visited New York—appreciate more of what the city is all about than the boneheads at the LMDC.

You broke my heart.

M. Robinson
Fairhope, AL

 

 


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