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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.