A Challenge to Teach For America's Corporate Orientation, From Those on the Inside
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/michaeljung
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Twenty-four years running, the rap on Teach for America (TFA) is a sampled, re-sampled, burned-out record: The organization’s five-week training program is too short to prepare its recruits to teach, especially in chronically under-served urban and rural districts; corps members only have to commit to teach for two years, which destabilizes schools, undermines the teaching profession, and undercuts teachers unions; and TFA, with the help of its 501(c)4 spin-off, Leadership for Educational Equity, is a leading force in the movement to close “failing” schools, expand charter schools, and tie teachers’ job security to their students’ standardized test scores. Critics burn TFA in internet-effigy across the universe of teacher listservs and labor-friendly blogs. Last July, it earned Onion fame: an op-ed entitled “My Year Volunteering As A Teacher Helped Educate A New Generation Of Underprivileged Kids,” followed by a student’s take, “Can We Please, Just Once, Have A Real Teacher?”
Despite the endless outcry, no one has ever staged a coordinated, national effort to overhaul, or put the brakes on, TFA—let alone anyone from within the TFA rank-and-file. On July 14, in a summit at the annual Free Minds/Free People education conference in Chicago, a group of alumni and corps members will be the first to do so.
The summit, billed as “Organizing Resistance Against Teach for America and its Role in Privatization,” is being organized by a committee of scholars, parents, activists, and current corps members. Its mission is to challenge the organization’s centrality in the corporate-backed, market-driven, testing-oriented movement in urban education.
“The goal is to help attendees identify the resources they have as activists and educators to advocate for real, just reform in their communities,” says co-coordinator Beth Sondel, a 2004 TFA alum who is now a PhD student in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin. Though the organizers don’t have pre-set goals, possible outcomes range from a push for school districts not to contract with TFA to counter-recruitment of potential corps members away from the program.
TFA’s resources are enormous. The organization’s total assets for the 2011 fiscal year topped $350 million. That includes eight-figure support from the Broad, Walton, and Gates Foundations, leading bankrollers of campaigns to privatize school districts and ramp up standardized testing. The TFA orbit is also growing. It now has more than 10,000 corps members in 48 regions, as well as more than 32,000 alumni. Districts pay thousands in fees to TFA for each corps member in addition to their salaries—at the expense of the existing teacher workforce. Chicago, for example, is closing 48 schools and laying off 850 teachers and staff while welcoming 350 corps members. After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans cut 7,500 school staff, converted the majority of its schools to charters, and, between 2005 and 2010, saw its share of black teachers drop from 73 percent to 56 percent. Over the past five years, TFA expanded its Greater New Orleans corps from 85 teachers to 375.
For districts, charter schools and fast-tracked teachers are attractive alternatives to public schools staffed with unionized labor—especially under the well-financed push that TFA supports. As the organization grows, it cultivates leaders who align themselves with its pro-charter slant. Leadership for Educational Equity’s alumni resources, as well as its biggest names, trend toward a particular politics. The 11,000 alumni who attended TFA’s 20-year anniversary summit in 2011 got to hear from charter boosters ranging from Harlem Children’s Zone CEO Geoffrey Canada and StudentsFirst CEO Michelle Rhee to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Colorado State Senator Michael Johnston. TFA alums are principals at half of KIPP charter schools—which two alumni founded—and the majority of Achievement First schools. Of the corps members TFA claims remain in education after their two-year stint (a hotly contested figure), administrators and extracurricular leaders are included.