Why Are So Many People Resisting Teach for America?

by R.L. Stephens II on July 2, 2013

Earlier this week, a group of educators in MN who opposed Teach for America’s (TFA) efforts to partner with the U of MN posted a letter summarizing their critiques of the program. They, and many others, represent a burgeoning resistance movement to TFA that is comprised of community members, educators, and former TFA members all united against TFA’s brand of “education reform”. In fact, July 11-14th there will be an education summit in Chicago that will include a session titled “Organizing Resistance to Teach for America and its Role in Privatization”.

The resistance has even extended into politics. In May 2013, the governor of MN vetoed a bill provision that would have given TFA $1.5 million over two years.  In his letter to the legislature, he justified his veto on the basis that (1) TFA has financial assets in excess of $350 million dollars and don’t need this state grant, (2) “No competitive grant program was established; no other applications were solicited; and no objective review was made by an independent panel of experts”.

I decided to write about TFA because I recently got into a huge fight with a few of my college friends over the program. I went to Carleton College, a fairly prestigious institution, and one of the “elite” feeder-schools into TFA, so I have a fair share of peers that are TFA members. I posted some criticisms of TFA, and some of my peers were incensed.  So, I want to take this time to break down what TFA really is, and why I and many others oppose this type of “education reform”.

For a detailed review of how TFA was founded and the organization’s mission, please read Andrew Hartman’s article for Jacobin Magazine: Teach for America: The Hidden Curriculum of Liberal Do-Gooders.


Research shows that structural conditions or “out-of-school factors” determine at least two-thirds of students’ academic performance, but TFA treats teacher quality as the key variable in remedying inequality. Why would TFA and the education reform movement emphasize “value added” and “accountability” models over comprehensive strategies that attack the structural reality of poverty?

Teach for America’s corporate roots give us some clue. The program’s corporate sponsors directly benefit from the existing economic structure, and have no interest in radically altering that system .  The links between TFA and the banking sector offer a particularly cynical picture.

Wells Fargo is a core sponsor of Teach for America, an organization which purportedly seeks to uplift poor people of color.  Wells Fargo is the same bank that just paid $175 million dollars to settle allegations of racial discrimination in its mortgage lending. Do you really think that Wells Fargo, one of TFA’s biggest financial backers, is interested in the empowerment of poor people of color?

TFA also has the financial support of Goldman Sachs. This is the same financial institution that has consistently preyed on ordinary people and speculated on shaky financial investments, and after the bubbles burst, saddled the public with the losses.

To persist in thinking that TFA and its corporate backers are genuinely interested in remedying the plight–both personal and structural–of poor people, is to ignore the mounting evidence and embrace well-meaning– but misguided–fantasy. Substantively confronting poverty is nothing short of a revolutionary aim.  Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo will not be funding that revolution. Is it not possible—if not probable—that financial institutions that collapsed the housing market for their own gain, would also look to profit from the dismantling of the public education system?


TFA’s goal has never been to create long-term teachers, as evidenced by the nearly 80% who stop teaching before year 4.  Instead, the purpose is to situate their alumni in positions of power where they will act as “advocates” for education reform.  In fact, Teach for America has crafted relationships with numerous investment firms and elite postgraduate schools who recruit directly from the program’s pool of second-year teachers. TFA calls this process the “second half of the movement”.

One new program, for example, coaches alumni in how to run for political office. Their goal is to get 100 leaders into elected office by 2010. “We have to have advocates in every sector to work on educational inequity,” Elissa Clapp, T.F.A.’s senior vice president for recruitment, told me in June… “Our alumni,” Clapp said, “are living proof that these two years could actually be a career accelerator.” Negar Azimi, Why Teach for America

Teach for America’s movement has trained a generation of policy advocates that is opening the door for private investment to exploit public education. One former TFA member, John White, was involved in a Florida education reform organization that, according to emails obtained via public records requests, “wrote and edited (state education) laws, regulations and executive orders, often in ways that improved profit opportunities for the organization’s financial backers”.

For years the education market was a notoriously difficult industry for private firms to penetrate. However, due to the strides that education reform has made in policy circles (in part the result of TFA’s alumni network), for-profit firms are beginning to make serious progress in education.  Venture capital firms are racing to invest; “transactions in the K-12 education sector soared to a record $389 million last year (2011), up from $13 million in 2005”.  Many of these investors are not looking to increase educational quality; rather, they want to cut cost and maximize profits.

Education entrepreneur John Katzman urged investors to look for companies developing software that can replace teachers for segments of the school day, driving down labor costs. ‘How do we use technology so that we require fewer highly qualified teachers?’ asked Katzman, who founded the Princeton Review test-prep company and now focuses on online learning. Stephanie Simon, Privatizing Public Schools: Big Firms Eyeing Profits From U.S. K-12 Market

Education reform advocates, including TFA, see standardized testing as the optimal means for evaluating student performance and teacher quality. These beliefs have in turn been codified into law, including at the federal level where No Child Left Behind (2002) and Race to the Top (2009) have tied school funding and evaluations to high-stakes testing.

The entire country just finished a decade-long experiment in standards-based, test-driven school reform called No Child Left Behind… Under threat of losing federal funds, all 50 states adopted or revised their standards and began testing every student, every year in every grade from 3–8 and again in high school. (Before NCLB, only 19 states tested all kids every year, after NCLB all 50 did.) Rethnking Schools Editorial, Corporate Education ‘From Above’ and the Trouble with Common Core

As a result of these reforms, the corporate testing industry—made up of test makers, exam scorers, and test prep agencies—grew by the billions.  In 2009 alone, the K-12 market generated $2.7 billion dollars, and by 2013, the market had increased to over $4 billion.

It’s not just the for-profit test industry gaining from education reform; for-profit firms are beginning to directly control public schools.  In many of the nearly 5,500 charter schools in the nation, “private management companies — some of them for-profit — are in full control of running public schools with public dollars“. TFA alumni are not only championing these corporate investment opportunities, but current TFA members are being used to staff many of these newly opened charter schools. These privately-managed charter schools are an emerging market for investors to make substantial profits.

Wealthy investors and major banks have been making windfall profits by using a little-known federal tax break to finance new charter-school construction. The program, the New Markets Tax Credit, is so lucrative that a lender who uses it can almost double his money in seven years. Juan Gonzalez, Albany Charter Cash Cow: Big Banks Making a Bundle on New Construction as Schools Bear the Cost

Many of these for-profit managed charter schools put profits before students, further exploiting the children’s vulnerability.


Most liberal initiatives are designed to help individuals compete in what liberals believe is a system that, if neutral, is fundamentally just and desirable.

“The traditional liberal mentality conceives of society as being made up not of competing economic classes and ethnic groups, but rather of competing individuals who confront a neutral body of law and a neutral institutional complex”. Norman Podhoretz

I’m not saying that members of TFA are bad people, or that they’re not intelligent. Of course, not everyone in TFA shares the same opinions. However,I believe that they are being conditioned by a program that ignores the systemic nature of poverty and its affect on differently situated groups both in and out of the classroom, and therefore sees the individual as the problem to be corrected. According to the program, closing the achievement gap is about improving student performance, not changing economic structures. From my interactions with my  TFA friends that are angry at me, I suspect that they don’t notice the corporate exploitation behind the scenes because they’re not encouraged to question their assumptions about the economic system as a whole.

 Although 16 million American children face the extra challenges of poverty, an increasing body of evidence shows they can achieve at the highest levels. TFA

According to TFA, poverty is an extra challenge that individual children face. They don’t see poor children as a class, and so there is no need to challenge the structural conditions that afflict the group as a whole.  Poverty is merely an individual challenge, not a fundamental feature of a class society.  Personal effort is all that is required to overcome personal challenges, and so the weight falls on individual students and teachers to try their way out of poverty.  This mentality only serves to strengthen the organization’s corporate backers who are not only exploiting the larger economy, but are now taking advantage of the new opportunities that TFA and the education reform movement are providing these wealthy investors.

Finally,  I’m not uncritical of the public school system’s largely repressive and obtuse approach to learning, development, and humanity. However, instead of changing those practices, I believe that TFA’s emphasis on testing and competition only serves to reinforce the worst elements of the existing educational system. Worse yet, TFA’s brand of reform is opening the education system up to the same corporate forces that  collapsed the economy and left the public holding the bag. That’s why we need resistance movements.

TFA is right about one thing, “poverty is not a destiny”. It’s structural.

UPDATE 1: I wanted to make the connection between TFA and the broader corporate education reform movement a little clearer, so here is an excerpt from an interview with TFA founder Wendy Kopp.

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

UPDATE 2: Part 2 can be found here

12 responses to “Why Are So Many People Resisting Teach for America?”

  1. LeishaC21 says:

    I am a teacher, and lets be real — challenging “the structural conditions that afflict the group as a whole” is an impossible task. We’ve been fighting the War in Poverty since the 60s and are no closer to solving it than ever. But as a teacher, there are some things i can do, and first among them is to work to inspire each individual child. It is possible to rise above an impoverished or otherwise difficult background. There are untold millions of stories of those who have chosen to use their hardships as a stepping stone rather than a stumbling block. I can’t solve poverty, but I refuse to teach my students to see themselves as victims who have no chance to ever get ahead. I work with a number of TFA teachers, and find most of them to be earnest, caring teachers. I don’t know a lot about the political and financial background of TFA, but I fail to see how empowering the individual can ever be a bad thing. It’s like the old story about the thousands of starfish on the beach, and a guy throwing them back one by one. A passerby comments that he is wasting his time, that he can’t possibly make a difference. He holds up one starfish and says, “I can make a difference for this one.” And throws it back in the ocean.

    • robtheidealist says:

      Thank you for your comment.
      I see three issues. IMO:

      1) Challenging structural poverty is not impossible. The “War on Poverty” is not the outer limit of what’s possible for poverty reduction. There is *much* more that can be done. Also, the so-called “War on Poverty” was finished, and reversed, by Reagan’s first term. He deregulated markets and set the groundwork for the financial exploitation and turbulence that Wall Street has perpetuated.

      2) Handing over the education system to be run by Wall Street investors, the same people that collapsed the housing market, makes structural poverty worse. So, the corporate education reform movement, which TFA is part of, is opening the door for further financial exploitation of the school system. Also, these investors are not interested in creating thoughtful and skilled students with positive self-esteem, they want a return on their investment. So, it harms the classroom as well.

      3) We have to ask ourselves, what exactly are we “empowering the individual” to do? Investors need the test-based curriculum to be a hallmark component of the education system in order to demonstrate “gains” and to make a profit. They need raw data to manipulate. How does that help the students? To me, a test-based curriculum only furthers the worst elements of the school system: uncritical submission to authority, rote and meaningless tasks, competition, and the blunting of creativity.

      If we are going to truly empower students, then we have to get beyond the bubble sheet. TFA’s corporate backers, and the education reform movement, are not interested in that kind of transformation.

      • LeishaC21 says:

        I agree that the Ed reform movement and most politicians have not the first clue about teaching. That said, my point remains. As one teacher in a huge cog, I see my job as inspiring each child to do whatever he sets his mind to do. After 10 yrs in private Ed, I switched over to public school. I wondered if I would have to alter my teaching style in order to prepare kids for the myriad standardized tests they have to take. After just a few weeks, I decided I would change a few techniques and a few terms, but otherwise, I would teach the same way I always had — not worrying about a set of benchmarks, but teaching literature and English classes thoroughly as I knew they needed to be taught. And surprise! My kids showed huge improvements in test scores. I can’t fight the war on poverty myself, and I can’t fight the national encroachments on local education. But I CAN love my kids and teach them to think for themselves. I CAN teach them to reach for the best they can be at whatever they choose. I probably have huge political differences with the folks behind TFA, but all I know is the TFA teachers I have worked with think very much like I do.

  2. […] national education scene. The blog, Reconsidering TFA, recently plugged the event. Additionally, this post popped up on Orchestrated Pulse detailing why more and more people, on college campuses and the […]

  3. Nicole says:

    I am a second year corps member, and while I do agree with much of what you are saying, I am interested to know where you are coming from, as I do not feel as though you can accurately judge Teach For America if you are not or have never been a corps member (which it sounds like you have not). You are incredibly well-researched; however, perhaps you have angered your friends, not because they are unintelligent or “not encouraged” (although I do not know them), but because they feel as though you are judging an experience you are not capable of judging. One thing I can say about TFA is that it is an incredibly unique experience to EVERY individual, and it is dangerous to make assumptions when you have not been in a position yourself.

    • robtheidealist says:

      Thank you for your comment, and I hope you take no offense.
      1) In anthropology there are two ways to observe a social phenomenon. Most simply, the “emic” view is an insider perspective, the “etic” is the outsider’s analysis. Both points of view are legitimate and useful. For an emic perspective, I recommend: http://garyrubinstein.teachforus.org/2011/10/31/why-i-did-tfa-and-why-you-shouldnt/

      2) I’m not describing the experience of being in TFA, I’m describing the structure and its systemic impact. I know that most corps members go in with the best of intentions, and I’m sure that many of them are competent instructors. Finally, I’m not making assumptions about the individuals; I’m describing the program.

    • Mr. Harris says:

      I’m a teacher who has worked with “Core” members during my 9 years in NYC. Its unclear to me how their experience is somehow different than my own, except that I became a teacher with the intention of making a career of it. Most TFA folks I’ve worked with have since left the profession or moved into other areas of education such as policy. It’s nice that TFA “Corp” members enjoy a unique and individual experience, but so do people in all walks of life. This is not an argument for perpetuating a program which is causing more systemic harm than good. Please investigate Diane Ravich’s invaluable blog for scads of entries and links detailing how TFA has lost it’s way with regard to it’s original mission. It’s sad that an organization that started out with good intentions has devolved into an organ for untested and unproven reform methods. Worse yet, anti-union, corporatist politicians use TFA to exercise and gain political power. Unfortunately the public funding of education has become more political than ever. As a teacher and a member of TFA it’s vital that you understand your role in all of this, just as you would if you worked at the White House, IRS, teacher’s union, or Board of Education.

  4. […] Click here to read the entire post via Why Are So Many People Resisting Teach for America? | Orchestrated Pulse. […]

  5. Sjw says:

    Thanks for this article. I’m a 1968 Carleton graduate who is now an education professor. From what I’ve read the TFA training is somewhat cultlike, including sleep deprivation, and probably leads to strong identification with the group. From posts on Gary Rubenstein’s blog, it appears that blaming career teachers for neglecting childrens’ learning may be part of the TFA culture. I suspect that this army of young idealist temps rapidly moving into policy positions may be perfectly poised to assist the goals of privatizers. I could envision myself as a new, relatively naive, Carleton grad having been pulled into this.

  6. […] 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 […]

  7. Darrell Beam says:

    While I understand what you are trying to say here, the problem is is that these charter schools ARE producing students who can and do succeed, even minority or “poor” students. I am not saying the ends justify the means, but, their ideas, while radical, are working.