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.
TFA’S CORPORATE ROOTS
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?
EDUCATION REFORM: PAVING THE WAY TOWARDS A FOR-PROFIT TAKEOVER OF EDUCATION
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.
FOCUSING ON THE INDIVIDUAL, IGNORING THE STRUCTURE
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