Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 15 2013

#76: Some anti-TFA blowhard lights a torch

Hi, my name is Didymath(1), and I am anti-TFA.

I’ve been blogging in this space for nearly two years and if you are a regular reader, you are probably not shocked in the least to see that sentence. To muddy the waters a bit, I want to clarify what it is I am against.

I am against Teach for America, an organization which places thousands of mostly recent white college graduates, most of whom have no education background or experience, into mostly urban schools for two-year commitments with neither the expectation nor the desire that those placed will commit to teaching as a profession. I am for non-profit service organizations working to improve the educational and life outcomes of low-income students. I am not necessarily against alternative pathways to teaching in locales where teaching shortages are present.

I am compelled to identify myself as anti-TFA because it seems clear from posts from the likes of Justin Fong, TFA’s head of internal communications, that based on my particular worldview I must be on that side of the aisle. His post is itself a response to the Free Minds Free People conference in Chicago which had an “anti-TFA” assembly this weekend organized by TFA alumni. Mr. Fong’s post is structured the way many teachers call parents to deliver something negative or critical about a student. He starts with something positive, almost effusive in his praise (“With complete sincerity, you are a remarkable group…”). Then he very tactfully criticizes without being confrontational (“I know some of you are thinking, “No, no, no! I just want TFA to go away!” Seeing that happen anytime soon is just not realistic.”) Finally, he sandwiches the conversation with praise again (“You are some good people.”) Olive-on-top closer: aphoristic proverb. Beautiful. I would expect nothing less from a TFA communications head: a shrewd, bridge-building response to a group that is ostensibly asking him to find a job somewhere else.

Unfortunately for Mr. Fong, his post is mostly content-free dreck which obfuscates the issue the anti-TFA crowd are protesting.

Let me begin by objecting to this idea that is at the heart of most TFA apologia: “Teach For America isn’t going away anytime soon(2)(3), so work with us to make the organization better.”

This raises the question: why isn’t TFA, an organization that has quickly outgrown its utility, going away anytime soon? If you follow TFA at all (and follow the money that pours into the organization), the answer should be obvious. The program is well-supported in spirit and in treasure by powerful figures in government and in the private sector, many of whom TFA helped groom. I believe that the policy elite(4) and philanthropic big-wigs(5) love TFA for a variety of reasons: TFA undermines teacher’s unions; TFA teachers are less likely to stay in their placement region and thus less likely to eventually draw on state pensions; they lack respect for what teachers do and must be prepared for and believe that five weeks of climate-controlled Institute training is sufficient preparation. There’s a lot more, but Mr. Fong’s believes TFA’s support is more benevolently derived:

Teach For America has financial and political support because many people understand the value that it brings in creating a force for change of an education system that’s not working. It’s not spin. There’s a great deal of good that comes out of Teach For America—you have to settle with that.

No, you don’t have to settle with that! You can’t wish away these things because they are inconvenient to your cause. You don’t have to accept this at face value at all knowing that the sum of TFA’s organizational thrust is undermining the professionalism of teaching. I’m sure Mr. Fong is privy to many of TFA’s feel-good stories being an insider and all, but whatever evidence he deigns not to cite pales in comparison to the mediocre impact TFA teachers have on student achievement, the devastating impact they have by contributing to the revolving door of short-term teachers in low-income schools, and the havoc wreaked by many of its powerful alumni.

Yes, that is spin! I’ve identified in my footnotes many of the major figures who “understand the value that it brings.” They understand TFA’s value quite well, and not for the reasons I think Mr. Fong would like to highlight.

He goes on:

What’s also fair, and I can tell you this as an insider, is that there are many conscientious people at Teach For America who are also thinking about the concerns you have. We need more teachers of color. We want more and more people to teach well beyond two years. Should we be placing so many of our corps members in charter schools? What can we do to improve our teacher preparation and support? How do we get our teachers to create more culturally responsive classrooms? These are not foreign thoughts to our organization, and they aren’t new either. It is absolutely an organization that cares about people and wants to constantly improve.

Not much of an inside scoop that many people in TFA care about progressive values. And guess what? Good intentions and desiring these wonderful things mean nothing in the face of what this organization fundamentally is: temp labor comprised of mostly white neophytes working in majority minority schools. Hand-wring all you want, but until TFA changes what it does, we will be wondering about how to fix these problems internally while still serving the interests of the powerful forces who underwrite TFA and still being a massive contributor to teacher turnover.

I mean, is this all you’ve got, Mr. Fong? This is a pitiful defense and honors none of the concerns that “anti-TFA” alumni have. You want a partnership between TFA and its critics, but I am still failing to see TFA compromise on any issue of substance.


(1) See post #75.

(2) I read this in a passively hostile way, as if to say, “Your measly complaints are nothing compared to the size of this organization. Suck it up and deal with it. Oh, and lest I be perceived as a bad guy, we really want your input to help us improve!”

(3) I don’t think we ought to accept that TFA is everlasting as long as there’s an achievement gap out there to fight. If the populist left held their nose and banded with the populist right, they could put enough pressure on a Tea Partying Congress to cut Americorps funding to TFA (“Argh! It’s a bunch of liberal college students taking our tax money for teacher sleep-away summer camps! USA! USA!”) and suddenly TFA is stuck with their corporate masters private donors as their only source of revenue. It’s not implausible!

(4) Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, the TFA All-Stars (Michelle Rhee, Kevin Huffman, John White, et al.)

(5) The Waltons, Gates, Broads, and various not-as-famous hedge fund managers.

5 Responses

  1. Do you know if the folks from the “resistance” meeting have posted anything? Will they post anything?

  2. Demian

    I agree with Diane: “”Brilliant, stunning analysis…”

    Katie Osgood made a great response to similar calls last year from TFA/charter proponents to “play nice”. Check it out at http://mskatiesramblings.blogspot.com/2012/01/some-argue-that-we-should-work-together.html

    I also maintain a site critical of TFA at http://reconsideringtfa.wordpress.com/

  3. Megan Hanley

    Thank you for this post!

    I found Justin Fong’s article equally patronizing. Thanks for the “support” Justin, but your passive threats (“TFA isn’t going anywhere anytime soon”) make any compliments a little hard to swallow.

    It’s also very difficult for me to believe anybody who works for any organization and claims, “I can’t wait for the day when this organization is no longer relevant.” In what world is that an OK statement to make about your place of employment? As a public school teacher, I would never say, “I can’t wait for the day when nobody needs education.”

    Maybe there is something flawed about your approach if you are waiting for it to become irrelevant. It is just the most bizarre logic ever.

    Anyways, thanks again for this post! Much appreciated response to the well-known TFA arrogance.

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