United Students Against Sweatshops kicked off its second annual Teach for America Truth Tour at numerous colleges, urging the removal of “the organization from our campuses unless they make some important reforms.” The effort at Harvard received notable national attention and led to a conversation between USAS and TFA. Unfortunately, TFA did not agree to any of USAS’s recommended reforms although both groups agreed to meet again.
USAS’s efforts spurred college students from across the country to speak out against TFA. Students should be skeptical of Teach For America proclaimed the editorial board of the Daily Tarheel. Students from the College of William and Mary told Teach for America: You can’t fast-track teaching. A University of Houston senior wrote Teach for America is the wrong path to education reform. In An education in Teach for America, a University of Chicago student wrote that “TFA’s apparent mission to address education inequality conceals problematic premises.” And the Stanford Daily urged college students to Force Teach for America to narrow its scope.
Clearly, college students are not buying the marketing spin TFA spends so much on. Will TFA ratchet up its marketing and continue with business as usual and keep its corporate backers happy? Or, will it listen to the concerns of communities, educators, and the increasing numbers of college students and do the hard work of reforming itself, with the risk of losing some of those backers?
Check out my interview with TFA Alum Ben Spielberg where we discuss whether and how TFA and its critics can work together. For the most part, I’ve generally been skeptical of calls for TFA and its critics to work together. When such calls are really urging critics to be quiet or simply be more positive, Katie Osgood’s Hey Charters and TFA, You Want Me to Join With You? Then Change is an appropriate response. However, if working together could help address issues with TFA and could help both TFA and critics work more effectively towards social justice and educational equity, then it could be worthwhile. After all, one of the goals of this blog is to encourage TFA and its members to address issues with TFA. When Ben suggested on a number of occasions (in his writing and in online discussions) that such efforts could be more fruitful than critics might think, I became intrigued and asked if he would agree to an interview on the topic. He graciously agreed and here’s the result. Hope you find it helpful!
A common complaint of TFA recruits is the lack of preparation they receive for teaching and for the often very different environments they’re placed in. This is exactly what happened to Allie, a TFA Corps Member from California who was placed in a rural town in North Carolina. She realized quickly that “I was completely unprepared for the setting I was placed in.” Another common complaint is the lack of support. “To make matters worse, I was given very little support and assistance from the organization that had placed me there, and I didn’t know what to do. I was frustrated with TFA and felt that they had just thrown me in with no care for my personal well-being.” To her credit, Allie held on to her love of teaching, but realized she would have to quit TFA and pursue an “MA in Education and a California teaching credential, so that I can be the best teacher possible.” Read the full account of her experience at Why I quit Teach for America, but don’t consider myself a quitter
To many, it’s concerning enough that TFA targets its placements in low-income minority schools where this exacerbates the churn of ill-trained novices. Even worse, TFA has long placed their recruits in special education contexts despite these recruits having little, if any, training or experience for these demanding and specialized jobs. Without acknowledging this gross deficiency in their training for such placements, TFA has now launched a new Special Education and Ability Initiative, which provides additional, but still very meager, training. In An Open Letter to TFAers Tempted to Diagnose ADHD, Among Other Issues, veteran educator Mercedes Schneider voices strong concern about this attempt to train recruits to “professionally diagnose and serve special education populations”. She warns recruits, “Do not presume that a single year of “training” positions you to diagnose or un-diagnose members of a special population.” While TFA claims their high expectations will lift up special ed students, Mercedes warns them, “Do not mistake enthusiasm for invincibility. If you really want to assist special needs populations, make the appropriate investment. Return to school and treat your decision as an honest, long-term career move.”
In numerous large cities, TFA is moving beyond its role of filling teacher shortages and is becoming a willing partner in efforts to privatize schools. Ani McHugh is a HS English teacher who has written about TFA’s role in taking advantage of school closings to expand its presence and promote the growth of privately run charter schools. In TFA looks to capitalize on School District of Philadelphia crisis, she describes how TFA is part of a plan that will “ultimately hurt students, starve public schools, disrupt unions, and promote the expansion of charters in Philadelphia.” And, in Predictable reform tactics in Camden: close schools, lay off teachers, open charters, import TFA, she again shows how TFA is capitalizing on school closings. TFA has played a similar role in the privatizing efforts in Chicago as well, as described in How big can TFA get? And TFA is poised to do the same in Newark under the leadership of TFA alum Cami Anderson and her “One Newark” plan – even though it’s highly un-popular among parents and teachers and even though research shows no evidence it will help students, and will disproportionately impact teachers of color (refer here for links to the research).
As traditional public schools in largely poor and minority communities are closed, TFA is conveniently waiting in the wings to provide the cheap and disposable labor for the private charter schools that open up to replace them. As reported here, TFA recruits must accept whatever placement they’re given. It’s no surprise then that in these communities, TFA recruits are placed disproportionately in charter schools (see below for examples). So, when TFA says it’s not directly replacing veteran teachers, that is very misleading. TFA is indirectly replacing veteran teachers through school closing and privatization. What’s worse is that teachers in the closed schools are more likely to be minority teachers. So, even as TFA claims to be apolitical, its actions show otherwise.
Overall 41% of TFA alum are teaching in charters and 33% of recruits are placed in charters, which itself dramatically favors charters considering only ~5% of students attend charters nationally. Still, this figure masks how in large urban settings TFA recruits are placed almost exclusively in private charters schools where they provide the cheap disposable labor these schools rely on to undermine teachers unions. Below are a few examples:
So, when reporter Stephanie Simon asked Has TFA betrayed its mission, it seems clear the answer is yes.
The United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) has launched a “TFA Truth Tour” to expose the dark side of corporate education reform. “The tour will visit 15 campuses to expose the truth about TFA: not only does it fail to prepare teachers for the classroom, but it is systematically pushing to replace our system of community public education and replace it with an alternative largely controlled by profit-seeking corporations.” Each stop will feature a panel of student activists, local teachers, and/or TFA alum.
Coverage of some of the stops can be found at Macalester College (and here), University of Pennsylvania, and University of Wisconsin.
Additional coverage is also reported in Colorlines.
The #ResistTFA Twitter chat hit the top of Twitter trending charts on Feb 17th. The chat was organized by Students United for Public Education (SUPE) as part of their Students Resisting TFA campaign, but garnered strong and enthusiastic support from students, teachers, parents, and concerned citizens across the country. The event also received mainstream media coverage in USA Today, Washington Post, Al Jazeera, and Politico. SUPE leaders Stephanie Rivera and Hannah Nguyen released the following statement after the event:
“The overwhelming response to the #ResistTFA hashtag proves that there is an enormous concern among students, teachers, parents and citizens across the country regarding Teach For America’s disproportionate influence on public education. We are encouraged to see this massive outpouring on Twitter, and we look forward to continuing this important discussion about Teach For America on campuses across the country.”