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.

From the Opportunity to Learn Campaign

From the Opportunity to Learn Campaign

14 responses to “A Letter to My College Friends Doing Teach for America”

  1. […] By RobtheIdealist on July 2, 2013 | 7 Responses Part 2 […]

  2. 2012er says:

    Well-written post; I have a feeling that about 90% of those in TFA who read this would nod their heads in agreement. I cannot speak for everyone, but I can speak from my own experience with the affirmation that I was encouraged by TFA to pursue the conversations I did:

    -We read authors of diverse racial backgrounds and discussed how their stories fit into the “traditional narrative of our country,” leading two of my students–in different grades/classes–to remark that it was “about time we read some black authors.”

    -When we talk about or prepare for standardized tests, we also discuss how these tests are often arbitrary and don’t measure much of the important stuff we do [perspective, work ethic, organization, abstract ideas, ambiguous/nuanced thinking, etc.]. Yet we also discuss how the tests, if you’re not prepared, will be barriers to some opportunities [graduation, college] and that, until the system is changed, they are important in the current moment for students.

    -We talk about past issues as well as current ones [a week on the Chicago School closings, ending with position papers that outlined their thoughts as well as the counterpoints to those thoughts].

    -We talk about the issues they face coming from the community that they do, the strengths and assets that their own community offers, and the different pathways available to them after high school [and the benefits/downsides of each, including college].

    I have learned far more from my students and their unique perspectives this past year than they have learned from me, which is why I am so excited to return to the classroom in August. I don’t believe that tests and test-based curricula are sufficient for what our kids need, but I also realize that I am doing a disservice to these kids if I do not prepare them for these tests alongside the things that truly matter.

    I don’t believe I offer students “things they wouldn’t have had otherwise.” Rather, all I hope is that I can give them my best each day in terms of preparation and attitude, and that I can help them by being just another of their many teachers who care for them as students and people.

    Thanks for your post; I appreciate your lens into this increasingly-important subject.

  3. Darin Lim Yankowitz says:


    Thanks for writing this. There’s far too much talking past each other – and far too little talking with each other – in education, and I really appreciate the opportunity to learn from smart people who disagree with me.

    In case the above does not give it away: Hi, my name is Darin, and I was a TFA corps member. I currently work on TFA staff.

    I think we actually disagree on little, philosophically (although we may disagree significantly on the best means to pursue our convictions). Much of what you wrote speaks strongly to me. This, especially: “it is the self-determination and collective action of those at the margins that will be the driving force for liberation.” I agree with this 100%. But I also believe that TFA believes this 100%. It is, in fact, one of the reasons I continue to work for the organization.

    I approach my work at TFA with the aim of unleashing student leadership – our best teachers do not simply lead students to read more fluently, solve harder math problems, or design competent science experiments. They instill critical consciousness in students and teach their kids to examine and critique the power structures that surround them; they help their kids to blossom into community leaders and self-advocates; they build the future generation of social activists. This orientation toward building student leadership is at the heart of our transformational change core value.

    TFA has evolved significantly as an organization over its 20+ years. When I was a corps member, the focus was much more on leading kids to master technical skills. I, at least, was thinking: How do I lead my kids to master the same level of science content as their more affluent peers? Not: How can I teach them to learn science in a way that prepares them to challenge structural inequity?

    (Don’t get me wrong: I think that academics are important. There is a real and important gap between my former students’ fluency, critical thinking ability, broad content knowledge, etc. and the students who attended selective magnet schools across the river. And I believe that we need to prepare our teachers to be strong technical teachers. But I think our organization’s recognition that academic mastery is necessary – but not sufficient – to solve the enormity of the opportunity gap is exactly why we adopted “transformational change” as one of our new core values a few years ago.)

    Moreover, to your point that “[liberation means that poor people] 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.” Yes – and this is our exact theory of change. Not just on the student level, but with our own corps members. This is why “diversity” is another one of our corps values, and we work so hard to recruit people of color and people from low-income communities.

    Many of our alumni will become lifelong teachers, principals, and superintendents. But we need broad social change to close the opportunity gap – we need sweeping change in government, business, law, etc. Excellent classrooms and schools, again, are necessary but not sufficient. So we recruit a diverse pool of people into the corps, build their understanding of educational inequity and conviction that it is solvable as teachers, and then support them to become advocates for students and low-income communities in all sectors. Again – I want many, many alumni to stay in education. But I also want them to lead change as politicians, policy wonks, labor and immigration attorneys, pediatricians and hospital administrators, etc.

    This is getting very long now, and apologies for rambling. Again – I really appreciate your sharing your thoughts so openly, honestly, respectfully. And I’m looking forward to hopefully hearing more.


    PS: Usual disclaimer here that I’m speaking for myself and my opinions about TFA, and don’t define the entire organization’s stance on education – as much as I’d like to 🙂

    • robtheidealist says:

      Thank you for your response. I hear what you’re saying, and I certainly feel that, as individuals, I and many TFA members can find common ground. However, the main point of TFA is to build leadership capacity in the broader education reform movement, as you’ve implied. Do you think that movement, funded by investment banks and others, is furthering the points that you and I agree on (empowering marginalized people etc)?

      • Darin Lim Yankowitz says:

        Two thoughts here.

        1. The mission of TFA is to build leadership capacity in the movement for educational equity, not in education reform — and I think that’s an important distinction.

        Something we spend a lot of time talking about is how to help CMs develop a personal theory of change. That is, we want their experience in the classroom to fuel their conviction that low-income kids deserve better opportunities, and we want them to reflect on their experience and figure out how they, personally, are best-suited to work toward that end. I think of it like this: what’s the intersection of what the CM is most passionate about, what they perceive to be the biggest barriers to students leading successful lives, and what they are best-positioned to succeed at?

        Our alumni believe — and therefore do — many different things. To pick one example: Some think that the centralized district model is broken, and advocate for a new model through policy, by founding charter schools, etc. Others are passionate believes in the traditional system, work in district schools, and become teacher’s union leaders. And of course there are many in between.

        But the point I’m trying to make is that our goal isn’t to indoctrinate our people, or push them toward any one ideology. We embrace a diversity of ideas, and are just as proud of our alumni who work as district superintendents as the ones who found new CMOs. It will take a lot of smart people, working very hard, with very different beliefs to figure this problem out.

        2. To answer your question directly: Do I think that is possible for organizations which are funded by the beneficiaries of an unjust system to work toward dismantling that system? I can’t speak for every organization out there, but in the case of TFA at least — yes, and for all the reasons I outlined in my previous comment.

        Organizationally, we’re committed to building student leadership, effecting transformational change, recruiting a diverse corps that is representative of the communities we serve, and empowering those people to fight for equity. That’s what we do. That’s why I work here. That doesn’t change based on who happens to fund our programming.

        • robtheidealist says:

          I hear you, and I respect your response. However, I think that supporting the broader “education reform” movement, and all that entails, is exactly what TFA is structurally about:

          “We have a whole strategy around not only providing folks with the
          foundational experience during their two years with us, but also then
          accelerating their leadership in ways that is strategic for the broader
          education reform movement.” Wendy Kopp, Q&A: Teach for America’s Wendy Kopp

          She didn’t say education equity, she said “education reform”. I don’t think that the founder and CEO is just another opinion, her words carry weight.

          I subscribe to critical race theory, an idea that separates intent from impact. I believe in the good intentions of nearly everyone involved in TFA, but the impact of this program’s relationship to the broader education reform movement concerns me greatly.

          Thank you for providing some responses.

          • Darin Lim Yankowitz says:


            First off, I just want to say I appreciate this chance to talk with you — I think these issues are incredibly important, and I’m really enjoying this conversation.

            “Education reform” is a charged term. Some use it to mean “a set of changes that promote students’ compliance, teaching to the test, and moving power from the community to corporations.” Others use it to mean “changing an educational system that is failing to serve low-income populations.”

            Based on your initial post, I took you to be talking about TFA as producing members of an “education reform movement” in the former sense — and I disagree that this is our mission, for all the reasons stated. Although I of course cannot speak for Wendy, I suspect that she’s talking about “education reform” in the latter sense of the word. In that context, yes, TFA produces leaders in education reform — but I see nothing dangerous or antithetical to empowering marginalized communities there.

            I should also note that the “Our Mission” page of the website — at least as definitive a source on TFA’s mission as our former CEO’s words — describes our work as “eliminating educational equity,” “ensuring all kids receive an excellent education,” and “leading a revolution.” Nothing about creating education reformers, in the pernicious sense of the word.

            But to your (very good) point – impact matters more than intent. So rather than get sidetracked into a discussion about labels, I’d love to learn more about your views on why TFA has a negative impact on education.

            I shared all the reasons why I believe TFA’s programming — the way we select our teachers, what we value in classrooms, our theory of change — functions to empower students and create diverse advocates for change. All things that, I think, we agree are good. But you’re clearly still troubled by TFA as an organization. Is that because you don’t think that the things I described are actually happening, or because you think there are other negative impacts, which we haven’t yet explored, that outweigh them?

            Based on your comment that “the impact of this program’s relationship to the broader education reform movement concerns me greatly” I suspect the latter — but like I said, I’d love to learn more.

  4. Matthew says:

    My experience with TFA alums has told me that all TFA is is some sort of fellowship for privileged people in which they are converted into anti public education, anti union activists. The ideology plus “anecdata” they receive during their TFA stint makes them impossible to deal with.

  5. Arya says:

    I can’t speak for TFA when it come’s to “achievement.” However, as a teacher in another Teach for All partner, I can clarify a bit. We break achievement down into three different sub-sets of achievement. More specifically- academic achievement, critical thinking skills, and culture of achievement (CoA is essentially about having a positive classroom culture). Given that these organizations are not for profit, standardization of classroom results is important to measuring our effectiveness. However, this does not mean that massive, gov’t style standardized tests are the means we utilize. In the classes that I teach, we use alternative means (spoken quizzes, classroom culture surveys, critical thinking projects and skits, etc) to mine quantitative data that can be used to contextualize classroom results.

    Achievement is certainly an ambiguous term, and measuring it is a challenge. However, the Teach for All network is working hard to constantly increase effectiveness, and that means defining “achievement” and it’s quantitative metrics is a top priority. I hope the above helps lend some insight into how one example Teach for All classroom functions, outside of the context of Teach for America.

  6. KM says:

    This is the part that hit me the most: “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.”

    I couldn’t agree more with you here, however I don’t think that its solely on TFA here. I think the entire education landscape has forced educators into this hole. I am a current TFA teacher and as much as I believe in challenging power structures and educating true intellectuals the pressure from school districts to be more quantitative and complaint forces us into a box. TFA has never suppressed me or my passion to truly educate my students, they embrace it. The problem comes in when administrators threaten your job security because social justice, the school-to-prison pipeline and oppressive structures aren’t tested and therefor should not be topics of conversation in the classroom.

    • robtheidealist says:

      yes, thank you for your comment. there is an entire education reform industry and TFA is just one player. testing is a serious problem, but it’s not in the interest of ed reform groups like TFA to oppose that issue