“One day, all the children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” -Vision of Teach for America
Lately, I’ve been mired in thought, debating whether I want to teach beyond my two years as a corps member in my placement school. Inevitably, as I reflect on my role within Teach for America and by extension, the broader movement for education reform in America, I become increasingly aware of a fundamental disconnect between my vision of our nation and that of TFA’s. Based on what has been messaged to me, and from what I’ve seen, TFA is okay with the continued existence of economic inequality; I am not. These views are my own. Allow me to explain.
Teach For America’s mission is “to build the movement to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting the nation’s most promising future leaders in the effort.” I get that. I think this mission is admirable and it can also answer all critics’ questions about TFA’s stance on teaching, school choice, and poverty. The charter school movement, taken at face value, is exactly what TFA wants. If TFA seeks to give every child “the opportunity to receive an excellent education” then in many ways it has already fulfilled this goal by sparking the charter school movement. Am I right?
When I meet Wendy Kopp last month, she had a laser-like focus on charters, which makes sense considering she’s married to the CEO of KIPP. This marriage is a metaphor. Charter schools, such as KIPP, represent the “excellent education” part and as they proliferate coming to a lottery near you, every kid has the chance (read: opportunity) to attend a TFA/KIPP charter and therefore attain said excellence. Poverty need not apply. And, to be fair, while all charters are not successful, some, such as MATCH in Boston, KIPP, ASPIRE and Achievement First seem to be doing great work, especially in the areas of character education; an area most failing schools neglect in favor of test prep out of necessity.
Let’s assume for a second, I wanted to close the achievement gap while not directly confronting the problems of poverty. Here’s what I’d do in a nice, 15-Point Plan:
- Infiltrate the broken, public education system by placing CM’s in teaching jobs no one wants and districts struggle to fill.
- Use self-selected data and anecdotes to increase the size of the corps while using prestige and Wall Street recruitment strategies to entice undergraduate leaders to program, thereby further increasing prestige.
- Claim the system is tough even for the “best and the brightest,” so we need an alternative. Enter charter/privatization movement.
- Form partnership with leader of most prominent charter school network, founded by some of the 67% #alumni #marriage
- Groom TFA corps members to create new charter schools.
- Groom most ambitious CM’s to become policymakers to alter laws making lobbying and creation of charters easier.
- Continue to place CM’s in failing schools, while implicitly promoting public perception that schools fail because of horrible teachers, not poverty.
- Stay explicitly neutral as regular teachers are thrown under the proverbial school bus; meanwhile, continue development of TFA CM’s through book.
- Increase relative proportion of corps member hired in new, TFA-led charters vs. regular public schools.
- As teachers’ unions are increasingly attacked by corporate interests and friends of privatization/market reforms, TFA can come to the aid of said Teachers unions. Slowly ramp up rhetoric that maybe TFA was wrong in allowing the national debate to hate on teachers for so long.
- Meanwhile, charters continue to crop up everywhere being led and staffed exclusively by TFA CM’s who have two years of training in regular schools.
- TFA pledges to pull out of districts to allow regular teachers to have their jobs back. Randi Weingarten holds press conference applauding move. Diane Ravitch claims foul play, but union mob turns back on her.
- 99% of TFA corps of 2016 is placed in charter schools across the country. 1% of the corps is placed in a remote rural region because they came too close to figuring out the truth.
- TFA and KIPP announce company merger as Kopp and Barth renew wedding vows.
- Teach-For-A-KIPP announces IPO. Vision fulfilled. Billions are made; yet, poverty remains.
Now, I write all this neither to condemn TFA or KIPP nor to sabotage my potential for being hired by any partner organization… I say this because it needs to be put out there. A thoughtful, critical eye never hurt anyone truly looking to improve. In many ways I love TFA. I love its ideals and its mission resonates with me. It is due to this love of the organization that I want it to do better. TFA, please don’t sell yourself and, more importantly, your mission short. TFA was not meant to be an elaborate incubator for staffing charter schools. I think the work KIPP and other systems are doing in NOLA, Houston, DC, etc. is amazing, but we can and should expect more. Whatever happened to high expectations?
In the next year or two, I will seek to better understand charter schools and how to maximize their positive impact. At the same time, I believe the last thing our nation needs is ANOTHER semi-parallel system that privileges some while handicapping others. If TFA wants to promote best practices and truly work towards attacking root causes of education inequity, then sign me up for the long haul. I will put 110% into helping the organization achieving this goal. On the flip side, if TFA is in the business of turning public schools into alternative schools no one wants to teach at while incubating charters (ironically, reversing the aims of its original goal), I’m not so sure I want to be a part of that.
Let us check ourselves at the core (corps!), and ensure that our nation’s greatest education non-profits are not led astray by our greed and growth culture.
“Not all speed is movement.” -Toni Cade Bambara