Teach For America's Very Real Diversity Problem

What happens to teachers of color when Teach For America comes to town? According to TFA alum and scholar Terrenda White, who is now an assistant professor of educational foundations, policy and practice at the University of Colorado, a complicated cocktail ensues. According to White, the diversity gains TFA trumpets within its corps have come at the expense of longtime teachers of color, whose numbers have declined drastically in the very cities where the organization has expanded.

White's article on TFA's impact on the diversity of local teaching forces, "Teach for America’s Paradoxical Diversity Initiative: Race, Policy, and Black Teacher Displacement in Urban Public Schools," appeared in a special issue of the Education Policy Analysis Archives on "Teach for America: Research on Politics, Leadership, Race, and Education Reform." Jennifer Berkshire, the force behind education blog Edushyster, interviewed White on her findings.

Jennifer Berkshire: You have a new paper out examining TFA’s initiative to become more diverse. You use the word "paradox," but don’t you mean "success"? I just read this TFA tweet that, "The TFA corps more closely reflects the public-school population than any other large teacher-provider."

What’s paradoxical about that?

Terrenda White: When I was first writing about TFA, I was complaining about the lack of diversity in the corps, especially when I was there in the early 2000s. And so a part of me is really happy that TFA seems to care about diversity and improving their numbers, and I think I’m fair in my piece about acknowledging that. But while TFA may be improving their diversity numbers, that improvement has coincided with a drastic decline in the number of teachers of color, and black teachers in particular, in the very cities where TFA has expanded. I don’t see them making a connection between their own diversity goals and the hits that teachers of color have taken as a result of policies to which TFA is connected: school closures where teachers of color disproportionately work, charter school expansion, teacher layoffs as schools are turned around. We have to talk about whether and how those policies have benefited TFA to expand in a way that they’re not ready to publicly acknowledge. 

JB: You argue that even as TFA may be bringing some teachers of color into urban areas through the front door of its recruiting and PR operation, the organization’s advocacy for specific reform policies is pushing teachers of color out the back door. Can you talk about how this is playing out in some specific cities?

TW: What happened in New Orleans, for example, is a microcosm of this larger issue where you have a blunt policy that we know resulted in the displacement of teachers of color, followed by TFA’s expansion in that region. I’ve never heard TFA talk about or address that issue. Or take Chicago, where the number of black teachers has been cut in half as schools have been closed or turned around. In the lawsuits that teachers filed against the Chicago Board of Education, they used a lot of social science research and tracked that if a school was low performing and was located on the north or the west side and had a higher percentage of white teachers, that school was less likely to be closed. As the teachers pointed out, this wasn’t just about closing low-performing schools, but closing low-performing schools in communities of color, and particularly those schools that had a higher percentage of teachers of color. What bothers me is that we have a national rhetoric about wanting diversity when at the same time we’re actually manufacturing the lack of diversity in the way in which we craft our policies. And we mete them out in a racially discriminatory way. So in many ways we’re creating the problem we say we want to fix. 

JB: Because press releases from education reform organizations now make up a staple of my diet, I know that teachers of color are now the majority in New Orleans—51%. Isn’t that progress?

TW: Even as the number of teachers of color increases in New Orleans, we have to consider who these teachers are and where they’re coming from. We know that the number of teachers with local roots has declined sharply, and that a larger number of teachers in New Orleans has out-of-state credentials than before the storm. Students in New Orleans prior to the storm had many more role models who were from that community than they do now. Are the new teachers connected to that community, and will they be there for the long haul to develop meaningful relationships with students and parents over time? The question that I’m asking is whether the diversity of TFA’s corps is sufficient to excuse what was taken away from that community and its students.

JB: You’re also very critical of what you describe as TFA’s "managerialist" and "technocratic" approach to both teaching and education more broadly. Would you be referring to a view of the world in which there are no big structural problems, just an endless series of managerial challenges requiring managerial fixes?

TW: For TFA, the managerialism and the technocratic approach excludes a serious discussion about these larger, systemic problems: poverty, segregation and unequal funding. When I was a TFA corps member, I really believed that if I just had perfect lesson plans, then these larger problems wouldn’t matter. The technocratic approach is just about test scores and making them go up, and it’s disconnected from these larger questions. How do we involve parents, and do they have any say in what a good school is? Are they a part of these turnaround models? Do they get any kind of voice? I think the whole community-based model of schooling is very much being lost to a top-down managerial approach. Who is the manager? Where are you from and do you understand this community?

And what do you mean when you talk about "great teachers"? Does your definition include values like being socially aware, responsive and empathetic and understanding a community and its students? I think TFA has an ideology and they push that ideology at the expense of other important ways of improving schools, and at times they’re not just indifferent but hostile to these more systemic approaches to improving schools.

JB: You’re deeply engaged in the debate over how to attract and retain more diverse teachers. If TFA isn’t the answer, and may actually be contributing to the problem, what are some of the real things that need to happen?

TW: I think the cadet programs are really powerful. These provide opportunities for high school students, particularly high school students of color, to take high-level high school courses about education and major or minor in education when they get to college, ultimately becoming classroom teachers. I’ve seen those programs really work. The students know best about the kinds of issues that they saw in their own schools and they’re cultivated to be future teachers and change agents. In terms of retention, this is where we often fail. I’m going to be more cynical than some of my colleagues and say that I think it’s hard for teachers to have the quality school conditions that they want or to even control their school conditions if you’re stripping away their power to voice their concerns. Teachers have to be able to tell us how to make this profession something that they can thrive in for the long haul and not worry about burning themselves out within two years or losing their jobs if they complain. Being able to have them control and shape their own working life requires real political rights, and making sure they have the right to bargain collectively, the right to organize.

I’m a strong supporter of unions. I don’t romanticize them. I know there have been issues in the past. But I love the example of Karen Lewis. She really promoted a partnership between parents, teachers and the community to ask, what do we want our schools to be like? To me, that’s a collective discussion that involves parents, students and teachers.

JB: You were a TFA corps member back in 2002 and you were something of a star. May I violate my own rule against using the word journey and ask you to describe yours?

TW: My first year in the classroom was documented by CNN because TFA had chosen four corps members to follow that year. I think that’s why it became so important for me to reclaim my own narrative later on, because that year of being documented was part of what was almost a superhero teacher story—look at what these TFA corps members are doing. None of the other teachers who worked with me were highlighted, and yet I really felt like I was developing as a teacher through learning from and with my colleagues. In the TV segment, it was just me and the students and TFA, and the message was very much serving this larger TFA narrative that we can come in to these urban communities and make a difference in one year.

 And sure enough, I became one of those teachers who left. I remember a parent telling me that she was planning on her next child, who was still in a stroller, being in my class in a couple of years. At the time I wasn’t thinking about the profession and what it means to build a professional community with other teachers and what it means to build trust between parents, a community and a school. I was just thinking about me. The same year I finished my credential and was no longer provisional was the same year I sent in my resignation. That just didn’t make sense to me.  

JB: You’re part of a cohort of TFA alums who are now studying TFA, including Tina Trujillo, Janelle Scott, Beth Sondel, Kerry Kretchmar and Jameson Brewer. What led you to study TFA?

TW: I got a Bill Gates scholarship to go on and earn a PhD. The Gates Millennium Scholarship supports students of color and first-generation college students from the beginning of their freshman year all the way through a professional degree, and I was one of the first to receive it. So I went to Columbia University Teachers College and studied sociology of education. I started to learn about why schools are unequal, which is something I hadn’t learned in TFA. In fact, I started to learn that the students who are the most disadvantaged typically get the least experienced teachers—that’s one of the features of an unequal system. I began to connect the dots that, despite my good intentions and what I think are the organization’s good intentions, TFA reproduces this inequity. I was troubled by the contradictions between the structural inequality I was learning about and TFA’s model. I started thinking about my own narrative, my role in TFA and what the organization’s role is in educational inequity. That’s when I began to connect with some of these other young scholars. They were an example to me of how you start to unpack, explore and speak back to the dominant narrative that’s coming from Teach for America, but do it in a way that’s fair.


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