A Break in Teach for America’s Ranks

AP Photo/J Pat Carter

Teach for America is at universities, recruiting high-achieving graduates to teach in the nation’s underserved urban and rural areas. It's at school boards, lobbying districts to renew its contracts and import hundreds of its members. It's in corporate boardrooms, asking for tens of millions in funding. With more than 32,000 alumni, its former participants helm the majority of Achievement First charter schools, half of KIPP schools, and the superintendencies of D.C., Louisiana, and Tennessee. They dominate the well-funded, well-connected universe of charter schools and high-stakes testing advocacy. Teach for America is, increasingly, America. Now, it's facing a civil war.

Last month, TFA alumni and members critical of the organization joined students, parents, and community activists at Chicago's Free Minds/Free People education conference for a summit titled “Organizing Resistance to Teach for America and Its Role in Privatization.” (The Education for Liberation Network, which runs the conference, works with organizers but does not control the outcomes of summits.) It was the launch of the first national campaign against TFA and the first national-level convergence of dissident TFA rank and file.

While debate over TFA traditionally revolves around the effectiveness of its teaching model—recruits receive just five weeks of pre-service training and commit to only two years of teaching—organizers are focused on TFA’s broader political impact. With formidable corporate funding and partnership, TFA is part of a market-oriented reform movement that involves expanding charter schools to compete with district schools, pegging teachers' job security to students' standardized-test scores, and churning in fresh teachers while weeding out those who “underperform,” regardless of experience. These moves purport to enhance student outcomes; they also increase teacher turnover and destabilize school systems.

Summit participants raised issues with TFA at its many points of impact, from teaching to reform politics. Some who had gone through the program said the fast-track training had left them underprepared for the classroom and with little opportunity to voice their concerns. Others came from teacher and parent activist groups that champion critical pedagogy, student voice, and other goals that don't necessarily jive with TFA's emphasis on the role of singular teacher-leaders in mitigating poverty. Of these, some came from Chicago—ground zero for school closings, charter expansion, and mass teacher firings—and described TFA's continued growth in the city as the blunt edge of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's drastic overhaul of district schools.

Community activists from New Orleans, whose schools have faced an upheaval similar to Chicago’s, are co-directing the campaign. Hurricane Katrina stoked the firing of 7,500 district staff as education dollars were usurped from the city, the annihilation of the city's black workforce, the accession of most schools to charter operators, and the quadrupling of TFA's New Orleans regional corps. “Not just in education but housing, public services, health care—we're finding that a lot of native New Orleanians are being pushed out,” says Ruth Idakula, an organizer with the Community Education Project.

Before the storm, “the experienced teachers were like a grandmother to me,” Briana O’Neil, 22, told the crowd about her time as a student during the hurricane. Afterward, “kids were angry. We would have a different teacher every week.”

 

Teach for America is commonly viewed as an apolitical service program whose political impact reduces to its biggest names, like Wendy Kopp, its founder and most outspoken advocate, or Michelle Rhee, the controversial founder and CEO of StudentsFirst who recently became implicated in a cheating scandal during her tenure as D.C. schools chancellor. Behind this image, TFA anchors a political empire. At the summit, organizers showed a chart with 43 charter, advocacy, and training organizations that, as of 2011, had formal partnerships with TFA, one or more TFA alumni in senior leadership, or TFA alumni founders. TFA's 501(c)(4) spinoff, Leadership for Educational Equity, helps fund and train TFA alumni to enter political office and other leadership positions, and its members and resources trend toward charter-friendly, testing-heavy reform.

With these kinds of connections, TFA is a powerful player in local politics. In Chicago, for example, TFA's multiyear contract is granted by the city's Non-Competitive Procurement Review Committee rather than through a request-for-proposal process. By contrast, Grow Your Own Teachers, which helps parents of color become certified to teach in their communities, mobilizes in Springfield every year for state funds—which in 2013 were decreased 60 percent as part of $128 million in across-the-board higher-education cuts. Grow Your Own has also suffered because of TFA’s clout. In 2010, TFA–Chicago director Josh Anderson pushed Illinois’s P-20 Council, an advisory body on education policy, to raise the passing score for the state's teacher certification test; as a result, fewer blacks and Latinos, who make up most of Grow Your Own's constituency, have passed.

The war within and around TFA is a microcosm of America's battle over education reform, in which privatization and high-stakes testing are seen as either the solution or the problem. Like the U.S. Department of Education, which granted it $50 million in 2010, TFA's mission is based on boosting outcomes for students of color. “We are not the enemy,” said co-CEO Elisa Villanueva at a July 18 alumni event, in response to the summit. “People like me and you ... will teach in places many would dismiss as lost or forgotten, or worse yet, invisible.” On the other side, like the coalition of groups filing Title VI complaints alleging that federal school policy is discriminatory, TFA dissenters argue that the organization’s practices trample communities of color and feed systemic racism.

TFA defends its influence over policymakers. “Teach For America has financial and political support because many people understand the value that it brings in creating a force for change of an education system that’s not working,” wrote Justin Fong, TFA’s vice president for internal communications, in an open letter to summit attendees. “Teach For America isn’t going away anytime soon, so work with us to make the organization better.”

In a statement prior to the summit, TFA echoed this sentiment. “We need all of these voices engaged in lively dialogue if we are truly going to bring about educational equality for all students,” it wrote. “Because Teach For America is committed to promoting visionary leadership in education, we welcome and expect a diversity of opinion among our alumni.”

In order to satisfy dissenters, TFA would have to uproot itself from the financial and political networks that allow it to grow—a tall order given the breadth of its connections. Likewise, “resisting” TFA, whether to reform it or put the brakes on it, means reaching beyond the alumni orbit into the broader political sphere. This could mean discouraging potential recruits from joining TFA, districts from contracting with it, organizations from giving it money, or elected officials from supporting the organization. It also means continuing efforts to limit high-stakes testing, charter school expansion, and teacher turnover, while promoting policies—ranging from critical, inquiry-based, community-oriented pedagogy to training programs like Grow Your Own—that butt heads with reform orthodoxy.

Since the summit, participants have started campaign hubs in Chicago and New York. Activists plan to undertake critical research, organize teachers and community stakeholders, and launch advocacy to challenge TFA's influence. Most important, they say, they aim to continue sharing experiences across lines of difference. The campaign “will collectivize our knowledge of what TFA is and collectivize our strategies of organizing against TFA,” says Erin Dyke, a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota's College of Education and Human Development who has been working to prevent the school from partnering with TFA–Twin Cities to provide special coursework to corps members.

“Part of it is simply bringing people together,” says Kerry Kretchmar, a 2004 corps member and co-coordinator of the summit. “Our role as former TFA people is to get different stories out there.”

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