Education

How Teach for America Is Covertly Privatizing Public Education

T. Jameson Brewer, co-editor of Teach For America Counter-Narrative: Alumni Speak Up and Speak Out, discusses his journey from TFA corp member to outspoken critic.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

DeRay Mckesson might be a late entry into the Baltimore mayor's race, but his candidacy has brought both national attention and controversy to a field already crowded with nearly a dozen Democrats alone. A Black Lives Matter protester who gained fame and a massive social media following by walking away from a six-figure salary in 2014 to join the Ferguson uprising, Mckesson recently released a 26-page platform which outlined support for a $15 minimum wage, education development, youth development, and reforming the beleaguered Baltimore Police Department. At least on the surface, this sounds progressive. But critics say his involvement with Teach For America hints at another agenda. TFA is a hedge fund-backed nonprofit that gives top college graduates five weeks of training and places them in disinvested public schools around the country. TFA is known for rallying around its alumni, but there are others who paint a different picture. Among those is our next guest, T. Jameson Brewer. He's a Ph.D. candidate of educational policy studies and O'Leary fellow at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He's also the co-editor of Teach For America Counter-Narratives: Alumni Speak Up and Speak Out, published last year.
 
Watch: Interview with The Real News Network. Full transcript below.
 
NOOR: So, let's start off by--if you can just share a little bit of your own experience with Teach For America, what you've heard from some of your other colleagues that have been critical of it. And we have you on because recently there was an article written about DeRay, and it pointed out his connections with Teach For America, and it was pretty critical of those connections and what TFA has done around the country. And DeRay responded. He defended TFA. His response said TFA is working to get a quality, good quality education for students all across the United States, that he believes in strong public schools and he believes in teachers unions and collective bargaining. So you've had sort of a different experience. You've learned different things from working with and talking to other former TFA alumni. Can you fill us in?
 
BREWER: Yes. I'm a traditionally trained teacher, but I had the misfortune of graduating right as the recession started. And so after two years of looking for a job in the state of Georgia where I lived effectively having a hiring freeze across the board, I joined Teach For America out of desperation to find a job, and it was really during the first couple of days of being [in the] institute that I started to develop a critical lens on Teach For America, because it seemed to me, and others have talked about this as well, that Teach For America's approach to pedagogy is very one-size-fits-all. They never use the word recipe, but it's presented to incoming corps members, right, so these are folks who have had no experience or background in pedagogy or methods or child development, and necessarily this recipe for teaching is presented to them. And they're told to follow that. And if they follow that, 100 percent of their students will achieve 100 percent of the time, and you know, according to their academic impact model, their teaching-as-leadership rubric, you know, if students aren't achieving, and if they're not behaving in the classroom, well, Teach For America's figured it out. The person that is to blame is the corps member. And so some of my first critiques of the organization came from an insider's perspective about how damaging that narrow thinking about teaching and learning could be, not only for students, but of course for the corps members teaching them. And really, you know, Teach For America's message has shifted. It started as an organization that purportedly wanted to attend to a national teacher shortage, but especially in light of the economic recession and the tens of thousands of teachers being laid off, and Teach For America growing during those years, they've been forced to sort of shift their rhetoric to, well, you know, we don't really attend to teacher shortages, our teachers are better, and principals are preferring our candidates over traditionally certified teachers. What's troubling is that Teach For America, during the course of, as you pointed out, their five-week institute, they only get about 18 hours of student teaching. That's two and a half days of student teaching. And so for me I found it problematic for an organization to suggest that they start student teaching Monday morning and they're better than everyone else by Wednesday at lunchtime. That's disconcerting, it's problematic, it's a bit insulting. And others, of course, throughout the organization have decried not feeling prepared when they enter the classroom. And it's true that traditionally certified teachers struggle in their first year. But I think we can all imagine that when you have 18 hours or two and a half days of student teaching you're certainly set up to struggle quite a bit more.
 
NOOR: And so, you know, in TFA's defense, they say, well, we're taking the top, you know, achieving students from around the country, and these are people that might not have ever gotten into education, but they're committing to two years, and they have tons of support. There's other activities outside the classroom and throughout those two years which will help them become really effective teachers. How do you respond to that?
 
BREWER: So, I hear it a lot that Teach For America supporters will suggest that, you know, TFA provides all these sort of external support structures for corps members. In some ways they do, it tends to be a once-a-month professional development session.
But a lot of that narrative assumes that traditionally certified teachers who are not a part of Teach For America don't have those mechanisms in place. In fact, every school district that I've ever been involved with, either as a student teacher or as a teacher, they've had mentor teachers that have been in my classroom more often than TFA. And so it's a misleading sort of thing to say, that Teach For America provides all this extra support for teachers when in fact they don't have a monopoly on doing that.
 
NOOR: And talk a little bit about the impact of that two-year commitment, because many studies--and for example, my own personal experience of being an educator for about five years working in different classrooms in New York City, you know, two years is for many people, you're just kind of figuring out what you're doing, right. So what kind of impact does that have, not only on teachers themselves but on students and communities where you have that high turnover? There is a two-year commitment, and many, I guess the majority of TFA, they move on to other jobs. And they might be in the educational field, but they move on outside of the classroom.
 
BREWER: Yeah, you know, study after study has confirmed that what really matters most as far as student academic outcomes, right, so graduation rates and test scores, and of course we can have a conversation about how myopic test scores are. They're not a really good measurement for actual learning. Actually, most of it is influenced by outside of school factors. And so it's a little disconcerting that Teach For America puts so much focus on fixing bad teachers and fixing bad schools when that's not what the research holds up.
But it does show within the research literature that the inside of school factors that matter the most, certainly good teachers are, and if there's a revolving door of teachers that that's exceeding detrimental to students, right, because there's no investment in the community. But it also, it really undermines the notion of teaching as a profession. It conceptualizes teaching as a technocratic skill, and something of volunteer service. And I like to point out, as is often the case that I get pushed back on my critique, that I taught for two years and I left the classroom. Although I do still teach, I teach pre-service teachers here at the University of Illinois. And so I've not left the classroom, though I have left the K-12 classroom. The problem is that the reason that a lot of teachers, and good teachers, and even if that might include a few TFA teachers, are leaving the classrooms because of the onslaught of the other education reforms that Teach For America supports. Right, so high-stakes testing, merit pay, pedagogical approaches that teach to the test. The advent of charter schools and vouchers. And so all these things that are making teaching less of a profession, stripping teachers' autonomy away. These are the reasons that people are abandoning the K-12 classrooms, it's why I left. But of course, in Teach For America's support of those policies it opens the door for a need for more Teach For America. So it's a reaffirming and self-fulfilling prophecy in a lot of ways.
 
NOOR: And so I also wanted to point out that it does cost a lot less money to have a Teach For America graduate for two years versus a career-long teacher, right. Because you're talking about a 25-year career. That salary is going to go up. You're going to have a pension, you have other benefits to pay out. So for a lot of cash-strapped school districts, you know, they love TFA, because it's going to help them pack the classroom. You know, we are--there is a teacher shortage in a lot of places like Baltimore. It's not a very attractive place for a lot of people to work, because of all the social issues that exist, the higher levels of poverty and crime that exist in Baltimore.
 
BREWER: Yeah. Some of the recent work that I've been doing on Teach For America, and in fact a few of my colleagues and I who are also critical of Teach For America, we just published a study two weeks ago looking at this question.
So it's actually, in most cases if you have the prospect of filling a single teaching position with either a Teach For America corps member or equally experienced, or rather inexperienced, non-TFA teacher, it's actually more expensive to fill that position with Teach For America on the front end, because TFA requires non-refundable finder's fees, right, that range anywhere between $2,000-5,000 per corps member per year. And even if the corps member quits, the district is still obligated to pay the rest of that finder's fee to Teach For America. So on the front end it is actually more expensive to hire a Teach For America corps member, but over the long run if you're able to reserve those positions to be filled by Teach For America, in about, in some of the districts that we looked at, in about the eighth or ninth year there's a shift where Teach For America, even with the finder's fees, becomes a cheaper option because, of course, you're constantly resetting the experience level closer to zero. In large districts like New Orleans, for example, where educational reformers totally wiped out the teacher labor force, of course there have been lawsuits about that, there are massive savings for using Teach For America, because not only did they cut a significant portion of the teaching force, but they were able to shift the experience level of teachers closer to zero, and in the process saving tons of money, obviously ignoring what we understand about effective teaching, that it takes many, many years to become an effective teacher.
NOOR: And what impact does this have on teachers unions? It is a different, it is a different situation in places like Maryland, where all teachers are unionized. But in other, in other cities, other large cities, charter schools, for example, are not unionized, and TFA might not be unionized. What does this higher turnaround have on unionism in the teaching profession overall?
BREWER: Sure. I think, unfortunately, the United States is having a union problem. Enrolment in unions across the board has been steadily declining for the last few decades, and of course there are neoliberal politics we can thank for that.
But it's true that there are areas where Teach For America corps members, as part of their affiliation with the local public district, or as part of their affiliation with charters, as you pointed out in Maryland, that they're required to have membership in a union. Of course, there are areas where membership is voluntary. And there are some conversations about whether Teach For America joins unions, or whether they don't. But what we see is a lot of high-profile TFA alums who are leaving the classroom after two years, right, they've developed a manufactured expertise, if you will, and they take that into the policy arena where they advocate for a very particular type of, brand of education reform. Namely, to your point, one of them being trying to bust up teachers' unions. Right, so I'm thinking about Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst organization, right, that helped at least fund in some ways the Vergara decision in California that not only is looking at taking away teacher tenure, but really trying to undermine teachers unions. And again, I think the concept, or the idea that you could student teach for two and a half days and then become the teacher of record, and that certainly challenges and undermines notions of professionalism, and we would never allow doctors to operate on anybody with two and a half days of training, or lawyers to argue a court case with two and a half days. And so it's problematic on the front end. But when you look at the alumni who are going into policy positions and they're advocating for these types of anti-union reforms, it's also troubling thinking about teaching as a profession at large.
 
NOOR: And in your piece in the Washington Post you had published recently, you note that more than 70 alums of TFA currently hold public office. Several more work in the U.S. Department of Education and as congressional advisors. Alumni run the school districts in New York--Newark, sorry, Atlanta, and New Orleans. And you also mentioned Michelle Rhee, who was the former schools chancellor in DC, who sort of fell from grace for her aggressive tactics of firing principals and teachers on camera, which was later televised.
 
BREWER: And a cheating scandal.
 
NOOR: Yeah, and a massive cheating scandal. So what--do we know what the impact of TFA, other TFA alums, who have gone into these, you know, more--have gone into higher positions of power in the education world, what impact have they had?
 
BREWER: Yeah, so it's--it's a glaring gap in the evidence. It's something that needs to be researched more. There was a study that was produced two years ago. It also came out in Educational Policy Analysis Archives. Jacobsen and Linkow produced a piece that looked at the messaging, the campaign messaging, of Teach For America alums who were running for local school board, and compared those to their competitors and other school board members, their messaging, and found that the Teach For America alums were exceedingly more likely to align their rhetoric and public messaging to be, with Teach For America, to be with corporate education reform.
And so that's really some of the first empirical evidence we have. It's certainly an area that needs to be researched more. But I think anecdotally we can see that a lot of the high-profile alums, right, John White in Louisiana, Michelle Rhee, as we noted, right, they're advocating for a very specific type of marketization and privatization of education, right. Expanding Teach For America, which is the privatization of teacher education, expanding charter schools and school vouchers, which is privatization a lot of different ways. And so anecdotally we have lots of evidence of that happening.
 
NOOR: Now, sort of, I wanted to end on this note, which I think is important. Does Teach For America itself, the policies it pushes and advances, do they lead to privatization? Or is it just a byproduct, is increased privatization a byproduct of the work they are doing? In other words, are they explicitly trying to privatize public education?
 
BREWER: I think that it's difficult to say that they're doing it explicitly. And I think that's--Teach For America's smart, they understand how they're incorporated, right. They can't, they're nonprofit, they can't take policy positions overtly or explicitly. But they certainly do implicitly in a lot of ways. A few of--I'll give you a few examples. When No Child Left Behind said that every teacher would have--or excuse me, every student would have to have a highly-qualified teacher, it became problematic for Teach For America because, of course, the definition of highly-qualified didn't include someone who was emergency license or alternatively certified, or in the process of getting certification, meaning that they don't have a full credential or state license to teach. In 2010, the only amendment to No Child Left Behind at that date was to tweak the language to include teachers that were currently in training as highly-qualified. Of course, there's some anecdotal evidence of Teach For America pushing for that, of course, through their alumni base and some of their connections on the Hill to get that amendment passed. It was re-authorized during the debt deal that reopened the federal government in 2013. And so they've had influence in a lot of covert ways. But I think that as an organization that has 400--and I'm looking at it here, in 2013, $437 million in net assets, so approaching half a billion dollars in net assets, and this was two years ago, who has received, continues to receive money from the federal government, right. So taxpayers like you and myself, their conceptualization of teaching is that somebody with two and a half days of student teaching can be or should be a teacher of record. And they, of course, they try to suggest now that they're better teachers than folks who've spent four, five, six years training to become a teacher and getting a license before they do that. And so the organization's rhetoric surrounding teachers and teacher training I think lends itself to privatization. And of course, the KIP founders, the Knowledge Is Power program, right, the nation's largest charter network, being founded by TFA alums, they've gone on record saying that they rely on Teach For America as a fresh stream, or as a never ending stream of fresh blood, because they overwork their teachers so hard that it's good to have just a two-year commitment. And so there are a lot of covert ways that TFA is seeking to privatize all of education.