Oct. 17, 2014

An education in Teach for America

TFA’s apparent mission to address education inequality conceals problematic premises.

Over the course of the last several weeks, many students (mostly, but not only) in the Class of 2015 have received e-mails from one Emily Fitch of Teach for America (TFA). Fitch wants to convince us, apparently, to meet with a TFA rep to discuss “education inequality,” and, as the students I talked with and I can attest, she’s very persistent. As for selection criteria, it seems participating in any RSO from Doc Films to the UChicago Debate Society to The Midway Review will suffice.

Though I’m not sure my “involvement with The Midway Review” is evidence of this, I do care about educational inequality. But I also happen to think, along with many people with more education experience and better information than me (including many TFA alums), that Teach for America, in its current iteration, is a pretty terrible way to go about combatting it. This isn’t the place, though, to go into a lengthy explanation of why, or to make the point that what goes on inside classrooms is clearly not the root cause of the disparities that exist in educational “achievement” in America.

As David Omenn pointed out in the recent—congratulatory, insipid—interview in the Maroon, TFA is at least aware of the numerous, valid criticisms that have been made of the organization in recent years. They’re working to reduce turnover, get young teachers invested in the places they teach, improve the socioeconomic diversity of their recruits and to do more advocacy work in other areas that might affect the lives and/or performance of their students. They have, it appears, accepted the (obvious) role poverty plays in creating “educational” disparities, and are, it seems, no longer explicitly supporting the toxic prescription of cuts, closings, layoffs, “accountability,” and charters that’s been passing as “education reform” in this country for a depressingly long time.

What hasn’t changed, though, clearly, is their basic premise—that introducing young people with an elite education into low-income classrooms is a good way to improve “educational outcomes.” Never mind that accepting the data-driven standard of teacher performance is itself a concession to the destructive neoliberal trend in public education, the fact is that this most basic tenant just isn’t practically true. Again and again, peer-reviewed studies have shown that TFA’s recruits produce little-to-no improvement in educational outcomes for their students.

And regardless of the talents or intentions of the individuals involved, the effect of TFA as an organization isn’t just neutral; it’s actively harmful. The steady influx of young, cheap, non-unionized teachers into low-income areas is a huge help to any of the myriad public and private forces pushing the destructive, profit-driven, anti-labor agenda of charter schools and privatization. Both ideologically and practically, the existence of TFA lubricates the already rapid process of layoffs, school closures, and proliferation of charter schools of the sort we’ve seen here on the South Side this past year.

When TFA promised 700 new teachers to Los Angeles (funded by the highly progressive Walton Foundation, of course; TFA has also received large donations from J.P. Morgan and Exxon Mobile) just last year, it was expected that roughly 90 percent of them would go to charter schools. Whatever else they might do, no matter what they claim, TFA’s strategy implicitly blames teachers for the “achievement gap” (itself a ridiculous phrase) in American public schools. You see this in Omenn’s strange phrase about the “content area knowledge” of the other teachers at his school. (Code: “I went to a better college than them.” The technocrat language is a clue that he’s being a dick.)

I don’t claim to have all, or even any, of the answers—that’s exactly my point. It’s hard to believe that the organization is doing any serious soul-searching after the recruitment strategies I’ve seen unfold on this campus over the last few weeks. How could it possibly advance the agenda of education reform to round up a group of “elite” students whose demonstrated interest in “education inequality” amounts to participating in (it seems) literally any RSO on campus (the vast majority of whom have no experience teaching and don’t study education) to sit down and chat? Why not, instead of paying to recruit and train college students with vaguely do-gooder instincts, put TFA’s $301 million (in 2012) yearly operating budget—a quarter of which comes from the public—toward increasing the resources available to teachers who already have training and experience, who have demonstrated their “interest” in education inequality by teaching for decades and not by volunteering for a student film society, resources that they need and we know can have more impact than anything TFA has done?

Whatever reforms may be in the works at TFA, though I’m skeptical of the capacity of any organization founded—in the words of Wendy Kopp, its creator—on a belief in “yuppie volunteering spirit” to ever produce real change; as it currently operates the organization harms both teachers and students. Given the fact that our University refuses to divest from companies that are quite literally destroying the planet, it’s probably too much to ask for a ban on on-campus recruiting. At the very least, we should demand that UChicago Careers in Education Professions (UCIEP) stop hosting TFA events, presenting them as progressive reformers and funneling talented students–those who really do care about inequality of all kinds–away from less snazzy but more responsible approaches to public service.

As long as its ethos and recruiting strategy continue to reproduce the brand of casual, naïve, dangerous exceptionalism already endemic among students here, TFA will continue to make the same mistakes as sentiment-driven, top-down reform organizations everywhere. Part of what makes its flaws so hard to see is that they are, in many ways, mirror images of our own. To fix them we both have a lot of unsexy, incremental, difficult work to do.

Spencer McAvoy is a fourth-year in the College majoring in English.