A Letter to My College Friends Doing Teach for America
by R.L. Stephens II on July 11, 2013
I have close friends, people that I respect on a personal level, who are members of Teach for America. I’m writing this letter to you all. I want to have an open and honest discussion with you. We aren’t enemies, and I know that you have the best of intentions. I’ve already written on some of the structural issues with TFA, but here I want to talk to you as people who seem to care about children and justice.
I have a few questions and concerns; I hope to get responses from a few of you.
What is Achievement?
Many of my TFA friends speak about “achievement”. They want to close the gap between the numbers of low-income students and people of color that pass standardized tests and go on to four year colleges. TFA calls this process “closing the achievement gap”.
We are working essentially to build a leadership force of folks who will, during their first two years of teaching, actually put their kids on a different trajectory—not just survive as a new teacher, but actually help close the achievement gap for their kids. Wendy Kopp, TFA Founder
Closing the achievement gap, by definition, emphasizes standardized testing. While standardized testing faces notorious problems with widespread unreliability and cheating, I want to focus on what we really mean when we preach achievement.
The Elitism of “Achievement” Culture
My TFA friends and I have passed the exams, graduated college, and some have attended post-graduate programs. So when we preach achievement, we’re really describing a projection of our own accomplishments.
James Baldwin, Black author and social critic, was a prominent voice in the 60’s and one of the century’s most important thinkers on race. Among the topics that he covered, his critique of “white liberals” was a particularly poignant truth.
I have one thing against White Liberals which is their assumption that their morality and what they take to be civilization and their religion is something which I need. What I resent is the assumption I must be raised to their level. James Baldwin, Conversations with James Baldwin
Baldwin’s words should haunt us today, because they are no longer true of just white liberals, but rather, liberalism in general. So many of us wish to do good work with vulnerable populations, but are we, much like Baldwin’s white liberal, assuming that they must be raised to our level?
One TFA member describes her excitement to join the program, and her words reveal the attitude that Baldwin once described.
I wanted to be standing in front of a chalkboard, dazzling the students before me with new information. . . . I wanted to . . . give them something they would not have had without me. Jack Schneider, Excellence for All
Like the TFA member quoted above, many well-meaning educated liberals see themselves, the bourgeois elite, as being the engine for social change. While the economically privileged, myself included, will certainly have a role to play in coming resistance movements, it is the self-determination and collective action of those at the margins that will be the driving force for liberation.
This liberation doesn’t mean that poor people will move to the middle class, it means that they will challenge the structural exploitation that causes poverty in the first place, and they will co-create solutions that no liberal think tank could ever imagine.
Real Change Comes From the Margins, Not the Elites
Fannie Lou Hamer was a black civil rights leader and former Mississippi sharecropper. In 1964, after a two year campaign– during which she was beaten, evicted, and shot at– Mrs. Hamer won the right to vote. She also successfully organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that challenged the all-white delegation to the Democratic National Convention.
It was at the 1964 convention, on the main floor and in front a national television audience, that Mrs. Hamer gave her most famous speech.
Her courageous defiance split the Democratic Party and gave hope to millions. Despite her indisputable accomplishments, there were still those that believed that she had no place in the forefront of the movement due to her limited formal education.
In 1969, when Hamer received an honorary doctorate from Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi… a cohort of middle-class black alumni objected to the accolade because she was unlettered. The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is
9 year old Asean Johnson, like Mrs. Hamer, is an “unlettered” child living in poverty. Earlier this year, his school was to be closed by Chicago’s city government. In response, he gave a rousing and widely-viewed speech during a protest, and shortly thereafter his school was spared.
When teachers embrace an elitist achievement culture, how many Fannie Lou Hamer’s do we miss? How many young Asean Johnson’s do we destroy? By defining achievement with test scores and college admission, schools are teaching the students to chase prestige and depend on validation from authorities. With that kind of submissive mindset, students will not be prepared to work collectively to challenge the power structures that marginalize them.
The False Promises of “Achievement”
In addition to the damage that an authority-based definition of achievement causes students, its premises and promises may not even be true. TFA, according to its stated mission located on its website, argues that education inherently addresses poverty.
Change is possible—help kids rise up through education and break the cycle of poverty. TFA
Education is not a commodity for the purchasing of equity. While college increases the chance of employment, not all of these jobs are lucrative and many don’t even require a college degree.
Out of 41.7 million working college graduates in 2010, 48 percent—more than 20 million people—held jobs that required less than a bachelor’s degree. Thirty-seven percent held jobs that required no more than a high-school diploma. Stephanie Czekalinski, Jobs Picture Grim for Recent High School Grads
In this context, Walter Benn Michaels, an English professor writing in 2012, has questioned the validity of the claim that education itself breaks the cycle of poverty.
And we should also recognize that in a world where most jobs don’t require a college education, the more plausible path to equality (even and especially if your PhD is in English) is not another degree but, as John Marsh argues in Class Dismissed, a union card.
More generally, of the 163,537,100 jobs expected to exist in 2020, only about 20% will require a BA. So even if we made and kept the promise of higher education for all, we wouldn’t be doing much to minimize inequality. We’d be making sure that badly paid (workers) had college degrees, but we wouldn’t be making them less badly paid. Dude, Where’s My Job? By Walter Benn Michaels
I believe that attending college can be a wonderful experience, but I don’t think that we should exaggerate the institution’s potential as a tool to defeat poverty. As Walter Benn Michaels notes, labor organization, not a college degree, is the key to combating poverty. However, if we continue to create hyper-competitive classrooms with zero-sum outcomes for students, we won’t be equipping them with the tools to fight for their futures.
Reciprocity, not Elitism
As a teacher I feel it is my role to help my students learn and practice self-esteem, the ability to work with others, and the vision to analyze how systems of power work in society. I don’t have all the answers, but the students aren’t empty vessels either. We’re in this struggle together.
Later in the previously quoted interview, Baldwin goes on to say that reciprocity is the key for social empowerment.
It seems to me that the only way we can deal with each other as human beings or as social units is to understand that we have to give to each other. James Baldwin, Conversations with James Baldwin
It’s not about what we can do for poor students; it’s about what we can accomplish together. We don’t need elitist achievement, we need collective action.