Teach For America (TFA) is a non-profit organization that recruits, trains, and supports recent college graduates to train for five weeks and then work, for two years, as teachers of record in low-income “rural and urban” schools. The schools that TFA places in are primarily in under-resourced districts that serve large populations of low-income students and students of color. In their recruitment efforts, TFA targets college students from prestigious universities with high grade point averages and leadership experience, rather than those who have completed traditional education programs. The organization has done an unparalleled job of recruiting young adults, developing their passions for ending educational inequity, and training them to believe that market-based policies and pedagogies that increase standardized test scores are in service of social justice.
Wendy Kopp founded TFA in 1990, with the dual mission to prepare highly effective teachers to fill the national teaching shortage and “build a movement to end educational inequity.” TFA’s ability to prepare teachers who are effective in the classroom has been challenged since its inception (Darling-Hammond, 1994; 2002; 2005; Heilig & Jez, 2010; Kovacs & Slate-Young, 2013). While TFA widely promotes the success of their recruits, much of the research they cite is not peer-reviewed, has been conducted by think tanks and research groups that have close relationships with the organization, highlights the most successful among TFA teachers, and uses students’ standardized test scores as the sole proxy to measure the quality of a teacher. Further, much of the research that TFA uses to promote their success compares TFA teachers to other emergency credentialed teachers rather than those trained in traditional teaching programs or those with significantly more experience. Yet, since the economic recession of 2008, the increasing national unemployment rate, and the diminishing teacher shortage, TFA is no longer filling a teaching void, but instead replacing more experienced, veteran teachers in cities such as Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Kansas City, and Washington, D.C (Heilig & Jez, 2010; 2013) and now Philadelphia.
In addition, while TFA claims to be an apolitical organization, it is becoming increasingly clear that their “movement to end educational inequity” is fundamentally a movement towards corporate sponsorship, deregulation, competition, and the dismantling of teachers unions. While TFA has always had corporate connections (Foote, 2008), in the past decade, they have become increasingly reliant on venture philanthropists. In the summer of 2013, for example, TFA received an $20 million dollars from The Walton Foundation, of Walmart, to expand their programs, making the sum total of Walmart donations to the organization an estimated $100 million (Blume, 2013). Further, TFA has become a central node in a network of organizations and individuals advancing market charter reform nationally. TFA provides human capital for and has formal partnerships with over half of the largest charter management organizations (CMOs) in the country and according to TFA’s 2012 alumni survey results, 41% of the 10,000 TFA alumni teaching in schools, do so in charters. Further, many TFA alumni have founded or serve as senior leaders for charter management companies or work in leadership roles promoting charter district reform. There are 150 TFA alumni serving as leaders of school districts and CMOs and 70 working as elected officials, many of whom promote a market-based agenda and the expansion of charter schools. Increasingly, TFA places corps members in charter schools rather than traditionally run public schools.
While charter schools were originally developed by progressive educators committed to creating alternative educational programs for those whose needs were not being met by traditional public schools, corporate elites and the Conservative Right have taken them up as an opportunity to infuse public education with market-based assumptions. This new approach assumes that when individuals are given the freedom of choice, competition will evolve and drive the overall improvement of services. While individual charter schools may still provide important alternatives to students, charter reform supports privatization in so far as it: 1) serves to blur the lines between the public and private sector by allowing charter management organizations (CMOs) and school leaders to run and treat schools like for-profit companies, 2) provides venues to test business practices in the public sphere, 3) creates opportunity for capital expansion and the outsourcing of services to private companies, and 4) legitimizes the private sector as viable providers of public services in the process.
TFA’s charter reform and privatization agenda was made clear at their 20 year summit in February of 2011. The event began when Kaya Henderson, interim chancellor of Washington DC Public Schools and a TFA alumnus, took the stage and addressed 11,000 TFA corps members and alumni as follows:
Twenty years ago, Wendy Kopp started an organization, and that organization became a call to action, and that call to action became a movement, and that movement is changing this country…We need you in our charter schools, our superintendents office, writing our policies, and the list goes on…This is the revolution we’ve been waiting for!
Former chancellor of the New York Department of Education, Joel Klein and market-based reformer John Schnur followed to reiterate a consistent and dire message: our schools are in crisis, ineffective or lazy teachers and the unions that protect them are to blame, and the solution lies in the radical transformation of our school system. Klein went so far as to correlate the efforts of TFA corps members and alumni to the Egyptian Revolution that was happening at the time. In panel after panel, entrepreneurial leaders and TFA alumni championed the role of TFA in promoting charter reform, deregulation of teacher education, merit-based pay programs, and other market based “solutions”. In their rally to “close the achievement gap”, TFA fails to acknowledge the long-standing efforts of public school educators, students, parents, and communities.
TFA may effectively convince some corps members and much of the public that their efforts are in service of justice and equity. For years there have been students, parents, community members, and experienced teachers that would argue otherwise. Recently, an increasing number of TFA corps members and alumni have begun to recognize and speak out about the barrier the organization creates to the yet to be realized promise of a just and democratic system of education.
Beth Sondel is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Elementary Education at North Carolina State University. She is also a Teach For America alumna. Her research, teaching, and activism focuses on the potential for and barriers to social justice and democratic education.