Resisting Teach for America and the "Reform" Agenda

Soon after I returned from Peace Corps service in 1990, I started to hear of a new organization called “Teach for America.” People fancied it as something of a domestic Peace Corps, which rankled. Not only did I remember the suspicion toward VISTA volunteers in Western North Carolina in the sixties, but I knew the reasons for it–and understood the difference between VISTA and Peace Corps.

No matter what you think of its purposes, Peace Corps is difficult. Volunteers spend a minimum of three months in intensive training and often live in conditions that are hard for Americans to imagine. My light, for example, was a kerosene lantern, my roof thatch, my water came from a pump a football field away and my sanitary facility was an outhouse. In addition, our work as PCVs depends on cooperation with local citizens. We don’t come in to replace, but to augment.

Teach for America, as far as I could tell, had neither the rigor nor the commitment to the host communities that Peace Corps makes central. Even at the start, it seemed to me, the organization was nothing more than a means for graduates of elite colleges to pretend that they were contributing to the betterment of “them.”

Over the years, as I have learned more about TFA, my opinion of it has, if anything, gotten lower. Unlike Peace Corps, which has the explicit goal of leaving communities stronger and less dependent (whether it succeeds or not is another question), TFA seems targeted toward ripping communities apart, replacing local teachers with a string of temps. Nothing the organization is doing, as far as I can tell, makes local schools stronger once the TFA “teachers” (it is hard to call them that, on the strength of their five-week training) leave.

I’m not the only one with doubts about TFA. United Students Against Sweatshops has even gone so far as to try to get TFA removed from campus recruitment. The group wrote to Wendy Kopp, founder of TFA:

Providing corp members to regions without teacher shortages has devastated local communities by enabling rampant school closings and teacher layoffs, which have helped to catalyze the dangerous phenomena of weakening teachers associations and privatizing public schools. Far too frequently, TFA corp members are taking over recently vacated teaching positions from unnecessary layoffs in new charter schools formed in the wake of public school closings.

Following the student example, faculty are also organizing against TFA on campus. There is even a new petition committing faculty to keep TFA from their classrooms. It includes this:

we understand that teaching is at its best when highly trained professionals enjoy a modicum of autonomy, Teach for America is part of a powerful movement to de-professionalize teaching by reducing all instruction to standardized test preparation, even though much research shows such tests do not measure learning or good teaching.

The problems with TFA go far beyond simple use of under-trained “teachers.” It is part of a “reform” movement threatening the very structure of American public education.

It’s not likely that TFA will ever recruit where I teach. The City University of New York is hardly the type of “elite” institution whose graduates can afford to give up real income for a couple of years. However, they do come from the types of communities TFA claims to “serve.” If TFA really did want to make a difference, it would recruit at my school, New York City College of Technology, providing its volunteers with real and substantial training and salaries and futures teaching within the communities they know best, the ones they come from. This would strengthen public education in America.

But that is not TFA’s purpose.

Sign the petition, if you are willing. I certainly did.

7 thoughts on “Resisting Teach for America and the "Reform" Agenda

  1. Teach for America is corporate privatization disguised as altruistic service.

    It is no simple coincidence that the Walton Foundation is the major “non-profit” funding of both Teach for America and the charter school movement.

  2. I strongly oppose any attempt to ban any organization from campus recruiting, which is a kind of speech. I don’t know why faculty would have TFA recruiters in their classes, but if they have such recruiting, they shouldn’t ban them for such ideological reasons. The better approach, I think, is to invite TFA in and ask them questions about these issues.

    I have been involved with USAS as a student, and I admire the group a lot, but I think these arguments against TFA are completely off base. To blame TFA for funding cuts and teacher layoffs is utterly ridiculous. Does anyone seriously believe that if not for TFA, there would never have been any school closings or budget cuts?

    By the same logic, you could blame anyone who volunteers for a school for taking the place of a paid professional. Or you could attack the Peace Corps (which is a wonderful group) for sending white Americans, at great expense, to work in foreign countries instead of using the money to hire needy people of color in their own countries to do the work. I view with suspicion any argument that takes the form of “this is part of a larger movement to,” because it doesn’t really address the merits of TFA.

    Criticism of TFA is fine, even if it is deeply misguided. But attempts to ban organizations have no place at a university.

    • Stopping recruitment is quite different from banning. You are conflating two different things, John.

      No one, also, is blaming TFA for “funding cuts and teacher layoffs.” But TFA certainly, if unconsciously, helps make these things happen. You are presenting a “straw man” argument here… or, at best, you are misrepresenting what USAS is saying.

      Also, USAS has asked TFA to sit down with them, and that has happened, though to no great effect–at least, not so far.

      And your analogy with Peace Corps holds no water. The PCVs are not sent “to work in foreign countries” but are sent to work with foreign nationals, providing a bridge between developing and developed countries (there’s much more to it, but that’s enough, here). That’s not something that could be done by simply sending money.

      Finally, though you might find TFA wonderful, you don’t give any reason why it might be so. All you say is that criticism of it is misguided–without detailing what that criticism is.

      • I don’t think it’s a straw man or misrepresenting USAS to point out that they say TFA is “enabling rampant school closings and teacher layoffs.” That sure sounds like they’re blaming TFA for teacher layoffs. My view of TFA is unimportant here, since the issue is the principle of banning recruiting by disfavored groups. Sure, a ban on recruitment is not the same as a ban on, say, allowing members of the organization to speak on campus. But it is still a kind of ban, and it is still antithetical to academic freedom. Would you have the same reaction if a pro-life group wanted to ban Planned Parenthood from recruiting interns on a campus? Would you say that’s not a ban because it’s acceptable to suppress recruitment? Who do you trust to be in charge of deciding which organizations are morally acceptable enough to recruit students?

        • If “enabling” is the same as being responsible for teacher layoffs, you would have a point. But it is not the same thing at all. Enabling an alcoholic is quite different from pouring drinks down his or her throat.

          One’s view on TFA (or whatever the subject) informs one’s thinking… so your view is not unimportant if you are commenting relating to it.

          A “kind of ban” is not the same as a ban, nor is restricting recruiters “antithetical to academic freedom.” It is not stopping them nor is it silencing them.

          I am not in favor of suppressing TFA recruitment but of moving it off campus for, on campus, it has at least a tacit sense of approval of the educators on campus. That’s significant in this case, for TFA is involved with education, the very concern of the college or university.

      • “Enabling” certainly means you bear some responsibility. And “a kind of ban” is exactly the same as a ban: it is a subcategory of ban that may not be as bad as other kinds of bans, but it’s still a ban. Banning an organization from campus is most certainly a way of suppressing it. Let me give an example. Suppose that an administration declared that the AAUP would not be allowed to recruit members on campus because doing so would be tacit approval of the group by the college. Would you accept the idea that the AAUP could be banned from recruiting members on campus?

        • Yes, “enabling” does imply responsibility–but it does not imply causality.

          If “a kind of ban” is the same as a “ban,” then why the distinction? You are using “ban” too broadly and too loosely.

          We’re not talking about administrative banning, anyhow, so you are changing the rules here with your “example.” When students and faculty are involved, something more is at stake, and that is community governance. There are plenty of groups “banned” that you would never stand up for, simply because they fall outside of accepted community norms. The point of calling for a ban of TFA is that many of us feel that the organization falls outside of what should be acceptable educational norms. If someone wants to argue that AAUP deserves the same treatment, by all means, try to make the case. What we’re arguing for here, ultimately, is just that (making the case). This is why the very nature of TFA is significant. There is no situation where all groups are welcome (you would not allow the porn industry to recruit on campus, and would probably draw the line before Posse Comitatus did). Students and faculty, in this particular, want to be part of the decision-making process (as they should be).

          Ultimately, John, you are trying to deflect from the real debate, which is over the value of TFA. We who want to see it removed from campus estimate TFA as a harmful organization and are trying to make that case. You refuse to address that, instead deflecting discussion into hypotheticals.

          Instead of continuing with those, why not say just why you think TFA (or the porn industry or anyone else not allowed there for recruitment, for that matter) is worthy of recruiting on campus?

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