Over the past two years, I’ve seen an increased fascination (fixation?) with the ever-evolving activities of Teach For America as a non-profit organization. TFA continues to be scrutinized routinely by people with a range of experiences, perspectives and loyalties. Fittingly, the reviews thus far have been mixed. What is most interesting to me is how TFA went from a “noble endeavor” to a threatening enterprise over the course of a global recession. To me, it seems the shift in public opinion is due less to a concern for children and due more to worrying about jobs. I don’t make that statement to invalidate the claims of either side; however, if the welfare of children was truly THE top concern, more critics should have been complaining more vehemently about the impact of TFA years ago! If anything, people are upset with Teach For America because they don’t fully understand its strategy and underestimated Wendy Kopp’s long-term strategy.
As an ambitious college student who wanted to teach, I could have done the Boston Teacher’s Residency or a similar program aimed at increasing the quality and quantity of talent in the classroom. Instead, I chose to pursue TFA because of its broader view on education reform. As a big picture thinker, I was convinced by TFA’s long-term strategy, in which it leverages its alumni to create systemic change through educational policy, law, business, and other forms of related leadership. I wasn’t sure if teaching was for me, but I knew that if I choose to leave the classroom, I could subsequently pair my teaching experience with my other skill sets in order to create the conditions I wanted to see in the classroom. I could still “be the change” albeit in a different context.
Is this strategy a major problem? Well, TFA Founder and CEO Wendy Kopp often says: “ending educational inequality is going to require systemic change and a long-term, sustained effort.” Does anyone truly disagree with that claim? No, they don’t. Where it gets a bit messy is in the details. Kopp elaborated in her Huffington Post opinion piece: “In Defense of Optimism in Education“:
“There are no shortcuts and no silver bullets. At the core of the solution will be leadership — people who will pursue bold change as teachers, principals, and district leaders, and who will work to shape a supportive policy and community environment as political leaders, policy makers, and advocates. More often than not, the most effective leaders have been shaped by teaching successfully in high needs classrooms. Because of their experience, they know that it is possible for low-income children to achieve on an absolute scale and understand what we need to do to allow them to fulfill their potential.”
Now, I’m not wholeheartedly endorsing this position, but as critical thinkers, it is important for people to consider her words. Every day on Twitter I see another educator lamenting yet another politician’s lack of classroom experience. I read things such as “I bet he wouldn’t last in a classroom!” or “they should all take a standardized test!” or “he doesn’t even send his kids to public school!” So, we are saying that we want our elected officials to have classroom experienceor at the very least act in ways that demonstrate a high regard and respect for the teaching profession. That’s perfectly valid- until those same concerns are flipped are used to criticize TFA. Understand that TFA’s long view is a movement where its “alumni assume leadership in every sector and at every level of policy in order to improve schools and to take the pressure off of schools by improving conditions in low-income communities.
This is not a bad thing. However, TFA will remain under attack until it acknowledges a few things. I won’t elaborate too much on these points, but the flagged areas include:
- Claiming (at any point) that newly minted college graduates are “better” than traditional teachers.
- Cheaper, often “temporary” corps members displacing more expensive veteran teachers.
- Alumni such as Michelle Rhee using their own experience to trump the experiences (often more extensive) of other educators or claiming to speak for everyone.
- Not being particularly upfront or transparent about the long-term plan of TFA especially in relation to charter schools.
- Having numerous corporate or controversial stakeholders and donors.
At the same time, it is important to recognize that TFA is not the same everywhere. TFA has what I call its “Band-Aid” phase and also a second “Brand-Aid” phase. In the first stage, TFA serves as a much-needed supplier of well-educated, highly motivated talent to understaffed, under-resourced public schools in low-income urban and rural areas. In some places, such as the Mississippi Delta, it remains stuck in this cycle of rotating corps members. Ideally, problems with teacher retention would have been solved by now and these schools could maintain some semblance of sustainable continuity. Nonetheless, this has not happened mostly due to those pesky socioeconomic factors few policymakers like to acknowledge. As a former 8th Grade Science teacher in a neighborhood school that was 99% African-American and 99% low-income, I’m offended when critics claim that TFA takes veteran teacher’s jobs. If those educators in New York can’t find a job, please move down to the Delta, where teaching jobs are much more plentiful. [I don't say that to dismiss legit cases of TFA shenanigans]
Likewise, few people wanted to teach poor black kids when the economy was fine, so I lean a bit more towards skeptical than sympathetic when I hear cries that TFA “interns” are taking the teaching jobs of highly qualified people. Like I said, no one was clamoring to teach these low-income children before the economy tanked. Is it really about the children? As a society, we were perfectly fine with letting Wendy Kopp’s cadre of ambitious youth staff high-risk schools when they were viewed as benign. To me, this is a slap in the face. I dare anyone to come teach in Greenville, MS. As we often say down here: “don’t do me like that!” In the Delta, TFAers (the good ones at least) and veterans (again, the good ones) work together because we are ALL trying to help our children survive in the environments they were born into. Heck, some days we are simply trying to survive ourselves. What people should actually take issue with is that our highest need schools have to rely on TFA in the first place. I don’t care how “effective” TFA becomes, it’s not fair as it stands currently. What we, again as a society, are essentially saying is the following: “Teach For America is noble and worthy so long as they don’t teach MY children and don’t take MY job. So long as it’s not in MY backyard, I’m okay with throwing young graduates into tough situations that I don’t want to deal with myself. I’m also fine with their being economically depressed, racially isolated parts of the country, so long as they don’t affect my taxes. Don’t tax me, bro!” How genuinely disgusting, and authentically un-American!
Outside of the Delta and a few regions, TFA has drawn increased ire because it is blossoming into the second stage of its evolution, which I deem the “Brand-Aid” stage. Having built up its brand and clout in education circles, TFA alumni are able to shape policy and the direction of education reform in some regions. We are seeing this in New Orleans, Houston, D.C., Indianapolis, and New York, to name a few. In these cities, TFA alumni have increasing positions of authority in government and school/district leadership roles and can leverage their networks and knowledge to create change for students. For proponents of TFA, this is taken of evidence of the movement coming full circle. On the other hand, for detractors, the prospect of TFA “infiltrating all levels of government is horrifying.
I agree with Gary Rubinstein, who asserts: “thinking schools can overcome all the obstacles of poverty by making teachers fear for their jobs is something that can only be believed by someone who knows very little about schools.”At the same time, would you rather have a politician crafting education policy who has taught or hasn’t taught? Ideally, you would have either a politician with no experience in education deferring out of humility or a teacher-turned-policymaker being informed yet open to discussion. Instead, we have non-educator politicians making bad policy out of self-interest and/or ignorance or, perhaps worse, policymakers with education experience being emboldened and blinded in thinking their perspective is the best thing since the renaissance. Perhaps it is time to think of Michelle Rhee as a renegade rather than the standard-bearer of the TFA Alumni Movement for education reform. Even more significant, it is crucial to remember that TFA is not the only player in the game. There are multiple organizations with stakes in improving educational outcomes for all children from teacher’s unions to universities to the State Department, and it would be unwise to discount their impact.
As for my part in the struggle, I’m currently interning at the Mississippi Department of Education through Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE), TFA’s partner organization. In this role, I seek to learn more about the educational landscape while contributing to furthering progress through my skills and experiences. Already, I’ve seen how the varying capacities of leaders strongly affect the quality of education the affected children receive. I do believe it is a mutually beneficial arrangement. I’m sure TFA would love for me to work my way up the ranks, but we’ll have to see about that. I’ll elaborate more on that in my next post-teaching post.