Photo by Karlsson/Flickr

Teach for America is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Twenty-five years may not seem like much, but TFA  has changed a great deal since Wendy Kopp first turned her Princeton paper into a real organization, and those changes help explain why some folks are throwing anniversary bouquets but others are throwing less fragrant and attractive projectiles.

What’s the fuss? Why would anyone object to a program to put America’s best and brightest college grads in underserved classrooms? After all—if it’s a good and noble thing to join the Peace Corps straight out of college to go serve the poor and needy on foreign shores, why not direct a similar effort to people in need in our own country?

From the beginning, TFA tapped into the most noble and inspiring images of teaching, the idea of standing in front of a group of young people and really Making a Difference. Who wouldn’t want to make the world a better place, to step into the classrooms that strapped districts couldn’t fill on their own?

But from the first there were misgivings in the education world. TFA was giving just a few weeks of training to its teachers, believing that if TFA recruited A students from the nation’s top schools, they would be naturally equipped to teach poor, urban students. Those of us in teaching raised our eyebrows—what other profession would let recent grads take over professional duties with just five weeks of training? Would my English degree plus five weeks of training make me ready to be a Brain Surgeon for America?

There were other concerns. As Jack Schneider notes in Excellence for All, TFA sold itself as a solution to national problems. Stated an early recruitment letter: “one thing on which business and government leaders from different industries and political parties agree is that the state of the educational system is threatening America’s future.” It was an idea that would echo through many versions of education reform—the nation needs poor people to be educated in ways that will make them more useful to corporate America.

As the program developed, it became evident that for many if not most TFA teachers, teaching was not the purpose at all. For many, like Kevin Huffman (Tennessee Education Commissioner), John White (Louisiana state superintendent), Alec Ross (Hillary Clinton adviser), and Michelle Rhee (infamous District of Columbia school chief), a couple of years in the classroom allowed them to claim “teacher” on their resumés. For others, TFA became a good line on grad school applications. Some corporations, like Google, considered TFA a plus for job applicants. The PR appeal of the fresh-faced idealistic teacher in the classroom began to clash with the image of an educational tourist—someone just passing through poor, urban schools, only visitors in places where stability and commitment are often desperately needed and sorely lacking. Perhaps a third of TFA’s recruits stay in teaching, but it’s hard to know because most TFA data is self-reported and carefully guarded from outside eyes.

While TFA was touted as a way to fill empty classroom spots, in cities like Chicago and New Orleans, the organization was seen as displacing trained, experienced teachers. TFA also became a popular staffing source for charters, since its novice teachers were both inexpensive and less likely to challenge charter operators’ instructional ideas.

TFA’s mid-nineties World Wide Web site declared a simple mission: “Teach For America is the national teacher corps of outstanding recent college graduates of all academic majors and cultural backgrounds who commit two years to teach in under-resourced urban and rural public schools.” 

In an NPR interview, current CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard reflecting on 25 years of TFA spoke about the “systemic problem” of education, noting that fixing the entire education system requires new teachers, administrators, policy makers, and politicians. TFA now proposes to fix everything including (having tweaked its program in the wake of criticism that its teachers were mostly rich, white kids playing missionary in urban poverty areas) racism, poverty, and inequity.

Yes, TFA also has a problem with perceived arrogance—“I’ve got a business degree and two years of classroom experience, so I will now tell you how the entire education system should be run.”

TFA has produced some strong and dedicated teachers, and it has also produced some of its own strongest critics. Alumni tell tales of being dropped into classrooms unprepared and unsupported. The anniversary also provoked the book Teach for America Counter-Narratives with twenty less-than-laudatory essays, and there are plenty more where those came from.

Notoriously unwilling to listen to critics, TFA spends truckloads of money to tamp down criticism. From a small Peace Corps style organization, TFA has transformed itself into a well-connected multi-million dollar corporate behemoth with many ties to the same big money groups busily dismantling public education. The Walton Family, the Broad Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates, the Arnolds, Exxon—TFA is tied to most of the major bankrollers of modern ed reform. TFA’s strategic initiatives for 2015 were about strengthening its community and staying on the forefront of leadership; it mentions nothing about educating children.

The image of TFA might once have been a fresh-faced college grad filling the need for a caring warm body in a classroom, but today’s TFA, while it still includes some well-intentioned, smart young people, is the face of the corporate dismantling of public education. After twenty-five years, there’s no research (outside TFA’s own) to suggest that its teachers are more successful than the trained educators they push aside, and there no signs that its leadership sees students as anything more than tools for achieving power and influence. That’s why I’m not sending roses.



Peter Greene has been a classroom secondary English teacher for over thirty-five years. He lives and works in a small town in Northwest Pennsylvania, and blogs at Curmudgucation.

Comments

John White is the state superintendent of education in Louisiana, not Los Angeles, which of course is not a state.

 This was an editing error, thank you for calling it to our attention!  

TFA

Although what Green has to say about TFA the real danger of this organization is the attempt to end unions. Many TFA teachers are now starting charters and almost none of them are unionized. Charter teachers work longer hours with no protection. TFA teachers are also heading to school administration positions and continue to argue against unions. There is more to this story than just unprepared teachers and a lack of a long term commitment to the classroom. Also in NYC it is clear that Goldman Sachs hires TFA teachers to join the corporate world after 2 or 3 years of teaching. TFA has a corporate mind set that is dangerous for public education and now that they are going global and taking this perspective with them. the entire world is at risk. Imagine what the Finns would say about TFA. What a joke they would say! That is what we should say! Danger danger danger!!!

This editorial is disappointing. It rehearses a lot of the same old critiques about Teach For America, namely that not all teachers stay, but teacher attrition is up to 20% countrywide in 2014 from 9% in 2009. It's difficult for first and second year teachers to stay in such a demanding and underpaid profession whether TFA or not. One of the primary goals of the program has always been creating advocates that will address the education gap from many angles and careers. Yes, the training is initially only a couple weeks (though ongoing throughout the two-year commitment), but would the author contend that education programs across the country have settled the issue of attracting high-quality recruits or preparing their graduates fully for the classroom?

I think in New Orleans or Chicago you might be able to talk about TFA being used to undermine unions and supply young, uncomplaining teachers to charters, but the reality is that there are teaching shortages in many states, particularly in non-urban centers, and districts often utilize emergency teaching certification to fill jobs, positions that do not have the support TFA teachers have. The organization has become a corporate 'boogeyman' for the divided state of education broadly, however the problem in New Orleans is that the local government refused to rebuild public schools after Katrina and is relying on charter schools to fulfill their obligation to educate students. That is a more complex problem and receives less attention because one cannot blame young Ivy League graduates. Moreover, to call corps members 'tourists' or resume padders is insulting, and, again, unoriginal. There are easier ways to get hired at Google. I think it often speaks to writers' own discomfort with communities that they may themselves be unfamiliar with to argue that working in low-income communities can only be self-serving and instrumental.

For me, this editorial does not represent progressive values, nor does it offer original ideas. Is it progressive to undermine a national service program that has produced a generation of education advocates?

"Is it progressive to undermine a national service program that has produced a generation of education advocates?"

No, it isn't progressive...if TFA was such a program. But ask yourself: What kind of "education" are these "advocates" advocating? Is this "national service" program truly a blessing or a curse...or both? If you look deeply, the push of TFA alumni like Rhee, etc. towards an accountability system that treats all students as if they are interchangeable, or widgets on a balance sheet, strikes me as regressive in the extreme, not progressive. Developing critical thinking skills, use of rigorous play as a research tool, developing investigation skills and content development through student-guided skills and challenging texts...THAT is a progressive agenda. There is no consensus on this at TFA, and many of the alumni who are in positions of power have advocated the exact opposite of this.

The ideas may not be original. But please don't misunderstand Peter's ideas as less than progressive. I've read his work for years and he is extremely knowledgeable in these matters, despite the implied aside that "it often speaks to writers' own discomfort with communities that they may themselves be unfamiliar with..." He is infinitely familiar, and so am I, with over a decade working in low-income communities.

If you don't see a solution, it's because there is no silver bullet. Don't look for one. That's really the thrust of Peter's argument. TFA was presented as the solution to all our problems, regardless of its original intention. It isn't. The best solution...the most effective one, is probably not a single one, but a regional or local strategy. One that values teachers who are professional, well-trained, and connect with their communities to work with children to grow to their potential. Since TFA hasn't done this to the extent they hoped, let's look for another way.

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It's finally setting in: Trump is Trump and he’s not going to change because of winning the nomination.

The new head of the Environmental Protection has a history of suing the agency for trying to do its job.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).


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