Trojan Horse for America: Teach for America’s True Agenda

Written by: Mitchell Robinson

Primary Source : Keep Talking, September 29, 2015

Trojan Horse for America: Teach for America’s True Agenda

Like many education reform initiatives (i.e., charter schools, merit pay), Teach for America was created out of what were once noble intentions: to provide bright, young teachers to fill vacancies in some of our nation’s most difficult to staff classrooms. What began as a fledgling start-up, sprung from the ambitions outlined in founder Wendy Kopp’s undergrad thesis from Princeton University, has now become “a political powerhouse, with net assets totaling $419 million, and is the darling of the most elite members of the corporate reformer set, such as Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee and Kevin Huffman.

But TFA’s mission has now been perverted as a result of the convergence of factors such as a struggling economy, an emboldened corporate education reform movement led by hedge fund managers and investment bankers looking to turn a quick profit, and blistering attacks on teachers and schools from both sides of the political aisle.

From Publics to Charters

When TFA began, Ms. Kopp’s goal was to send her recruits into the public schools, believing an infusion of “energetic but inexperienced” novices would provide a jolt to the central nervous system of what she considered a public school system on life support. “But since the recession, with education funding across the country drying up, teacher layoffs have become more of an issue than teacher shortages. Between 2008 and 2013, 324,000 teaching positions in local school districts were eliminated, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.” With teaching positions now at a premium, TFA’s practice of charging schools a $5000 “finder’s fee” for each recruit hired was now less attractive to schools choosing from hundreds of applicants for each vacancy. And yet, TFA continued to grow, expanding its recruiting quotas and administrative offices in Washington and New York City.

With the supply of public school teaching positions drying up, the organization needed to look for a fresh source of placements for their growing corps of eager young recruits. No longer content to focus on public schools, the organization began to hitch its wagon to the proliferation of charter schools on the education landscape. “According to internal documents and federal grant performance reports, TFA’s growth also increasingly hinges on fueling the country’s thriving charter movement. The organization’s data show that one-third of its recruits now teach in charters (up from 13 percent in 2007), which are mostly nonunionized, privately run, and can receive millions in private support on top of public funds. TFA has funneled a growing constituency of brand-new recruits into charters in large urban districts that have recently laid off hundreds of experienced teachers, including Philadelphia (where 99 percent of corps members teach in charters), Detroit (69 percent) and Chicago (53 percent).”

From Preparing Teachers to Preparing “Leaders”

TFA needed a way to provide more bang for the buck for the substantial investments they were receiving from the ed reform foundation cabal. To do so, they shifted their focus from preparing school teachers to preparing school leaders. In a stunningly prescient moment, founder Wendy Kopp said the following: “We’re a leadership development organization, not a teaching organization,” she said. “I think if you don’t understand that, of course it’s easy to tear the whole thing apart.” Pouncing on the “churn” of district- and state-level administrative positions (only 51% of school superintendents surveyed in 2010 expected to remain in their positions for 5 years, and over 60% reported having been in their current positions for only 1-5 years), Teach for America in 2007 spun off a subsidiary, Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE) designed to propel more of the organization’s 32,000 alumni into positions in state departments of education, policy think tanks, legislative offices and lobbying groups.

The results have been extremely promising. For an organization responsible for only 0.5 percent of the nation’s nearly 3.5 million teachers, TFA’s influence on local and state education policy has become enormous. TFA alums are encouraged to run for seats on local school boards and for state legislative offices. Jameson Brewer, a TFA alum and co-editor of Teach For America Counter-Narratives: Alumni Speak Up and Speak Out, shares the following incident:

“I was pulled into the district office towards the end of my second year (before I published my first critical piece on TFA – of course) and I was asked to consider running for the school board of Atlanta – LEE would help me, fund me, and take care of everything…all I had to do was say yes.  I was also offered a spot in the principal pipeline initiative.  I, of course, turned both down.  I’ve had conversations with LEE reps since then and we go through this symbolic tango about me telling them I’m interested but would run as an anti-TFA candidate while I test how far they are willing to go with that because according to their bylaws, they can’t be partisan…though, they obviously keep dropping the push to have me run because of that prospective platform.”

With an assist from LEE, the organization has nearly doubled its investment recently with respect to its lobbying efforts, spending almost $2 million since 2010 on attacking unions, weakening teacher tenure, supporting more and earlier standardized testing, reducing certification requirements, and encouraging the use of VAM in teacher evaluation systems.

Additionally, TFA has made it a priority, through LEE, to help place their alums in prestigious positions in Washington, where they exert an outsize influence on the nation’s education policy. “More than 70 alumni currently hold public office, including two state senators. Within the federal government, their ranks include two assistants to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, as well as education policy advisers and associates in the offices of Senators Harry Reid and Al Franken and Representative George Miller.” TFA corps members have become the zebra mussels of education reform, establishing bulkheads in the halls of power from the state house to the White House.

What Does it Mean to “Stay in Education”?

Under increasing criticism from teachers, unions, and even its own alumni, TFA proudly reports that “63 percent of its alumni stay in education”–but the organization’s definition of “education” may require a little unpacking.

The typical term of service for TFA corps members is between 2-3 years, although TFA’s own data indicates that “just 30 percent remain in the classroom — and the attrition increases significantly after the fifth year.”

So, while 2nd year TFA corps members are readying their exit strategy from urban classrooms, editing their resumes for law school and Capitol Hill internship applications, and leaving their students in the wake of a mass exodus of novice teachers on an annual basis, committed, dedicated career teachers are writing lesson plans, scrounging for classroom supplies, paying for materials for their students out of their own pockets, and staying after school to help students prepare their all-county solos, gymnastics routines, and lines for the school play.

Staying in education means making a commitment to working with students, families and communities to help children become who they want to be, to find their voices as writers, singers and scientists, and to expand access to a full and complete education for every child.

Staying in education does NOT mean temping in classrooms as resume fodder, or using teaching as a “stepping stone” for prestigious positions in policy think tanks and congressional offices, or putting in a year in the classroom before writing policy that will cripple public education for decades.

In 2014, TFA published its “5 Commitments” for improvement, a nod to the chorus of criticism coming primarily from TFA alums. The first item on the list is this:

#1. Being better listeners to both our friends and critics.

If TFA is serious about this promise, then I would ask them to listen to this request:

Use your power as an education policy stakeholder to support schools and teachers, instead of attacking and demeaning them. Your words carry great influence with the decision makers in Washington and our state capitals. Be a positive force for students, teachers and schools.

Show that you understand that teachers’ working conditions equal students’ learning conditions, and demonstrate that you respect and value career teachers. Stop the attacks on teachers unions, and the promotion of the “testocracy”.

Recognize that your recruits, as bright as they may be, are woefully unprepared to take responsibility for classrooms in our nation’s schools with a paltry 5 weeks of “training,” and consider reframing corps members’ commitments as “internships” in which they support the work of certified, qualified master teachers. Encourage your recruits to pursue teacher certification and graduate degrees in education, and to become fully-fledged members of the profession, rather than “edutourists” using their classroom experience as a ticket to Wall Street or Washington, DC.

If TFA really is willing to listen, perhaps their corps members will make “staying in education” mean something again.

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Mitchell Robinson
Mitchell Robinson is associate professor and chair of music education, and coordinator of the music student teaching program at Michigan State University. Robinson has held previous appointments as assistant professor and coordinator of the music education area at the University of Connecticut; assistant professor of school and community music education at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.; and director of wind activities and wind ensemble conductor at the University of Rochester. Robinson’s public school teaching experience includes 10 years as an instrumental music teacher, music department facilitator and high school assistant principal in Fulton, N.Y.