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Why Teach for America Isn't Welcome in My Class

A Fordham University history professor exposes the cynical and elitist underpinnings of the celebrated "Teach for Awhile" program.

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The organization's facile circumvention of the grinding, difficult, but profoundly empowering work of teaching and administering schools has created the illusion that there are quick fixes, not only for failing schools but for deeply entrenched patterns of poverty and inequality. No organization has been more complicit than TFA in the demonization of teachers and teachers' unions, and no organization has provided more "shock troops" for education reform strategies, which emphasize privatization and high-stakes testing. Michelle Rhee, a TFA recruit, is the poster child for such policies, but she is hardly alone.

Her counterparts can be found in New Orleans (where they led the movement toward a system dominated by charter schools), in New York City (where they play an important role in the Bloomberg education bureaucracy) and in states like Nevada and South Carolina, where they have persuaded education officials to replace lifetime teachers in low-performing schools with TFA Corps members, most of whom will leave their teaching jobs after a short sojourn.

And the elusive goal of educational equity--how well has it fared in the years Teach for America has been operating?

Not only has there been little progress in the last 15 years in narrowing the test score gap by race and class, but income inequality and child poverty have both grown more markedly in the last 15 years than at any other time in modern American history. TFA has done nothing, in its public pronouncements or its well-funded lobbying efforts, to promote income redistribution, reduce the size of the prison population, encourage social investment in high-poverty neighborhoods, or revitalize the arts, science and history in the nation's schools.

TFA's main accomplishment has been to marginally increase the number of talented people entering the teaching profession, but only a small fraction of those remain in the schools where they were originally sent.

But the most objectionable aspect of Teach for America--other than its contempt for lifetime educators--is its willingness to create another pathway to wealth and power for those already privileged in the rapidly expanding educational-industrial complex, which already offers numerous careers for the ambitious and well-connected. An organization which began by promoting idealism and educational equity has become, to all too many of its recruits, a vehicle for resume-padding and profiting from the misery of America's poor.

If you think I am exaggerating, ask yourself: Can you think of a single high-income or high-performing school district in the nation which would allow teachers who are trained for five weeks to be given full-time teaching positions in their classrooms, and then let them leave after two years?

It is no accident that TFA is cynically described by more than a few education professionals as "Teach for Awhile" and "Temps for African-Americans!"

An earlier version of this article was first published at the History News Network.

Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham's Urban Studies Program. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African-American History, urban history, and the history of sports.