Every spring, without fail, a Teach for America recruiter approaches me and asks if they can come to my classes and recruit students for TFA, and every year, without fail, I give them the same answer.
Until Teach for America becomes committed to training lifetime educators and raises the length of service to five years rather than two, I will not allow TFA to recruit in my classes. The idea of sending talented students into schools in impoverished areas, and then after two years encouraging them to pursue careers in finance, law, and business in the hope that they will then advocate for educational equity really rubs me the wrong way.
It was not always thus. Ten years ago, when a Teach for America recruiter first approached me, I was enthusiastic about the idea of recruiting my most idealistic and talented students for work in poor schools. I allowed TFA representative to make presentations in my classes, filled with urban studies and African American studies majors. Several of my best students applied, all of whom wanted to become teachers, and most of whom came from the kind of high-poverty neighborhoods where TFA proposed to send its recruits.
Not one of them was accepted!
Enraged, I did a little research and found that Teach for America had accepted only four of the nearly one hundred Fordham students who applied. I become even angrier when I read in the New York Times that TFA had accepted forty-four of one hundred applicants from Yale that year. Something was really wrong if an organization which wanted to serve low-income communities rejected every applicant from Fordham, students who came from those very communities, and accepted half of the applicants from an Ivy League school where very few of the students, even students of color, come from working-class or poor families.
Since then, the percentage of Fordham students accepted into Teach for America has marginally increased, but the organization has done little to win my confidence that it is seriously committed to recruiting people willing to make a lifetime commitment to teaching and administering schools in high-poverty areas.
Never, in its recruiting literature, has Teach for America described teaching as the most valuable professional choice that an idealistic, socially-conscious person can make. Nor do they encourage the brightest students to make teaching their permanent career; indeed, the organization goes out of its way to make joining TFA seem a like a great pathway to success in other, higher-paying professions.
Three years ago, a TFA recruiter plastered the Fordham campus with flyers that said “Learn how joining TFA can help you gain admission to Stanford Business School.” The message of that flyer was “use teaching in high-poverty areas a stepping stone to a career in business.” It was not only profoundly disrespectful to every person who chooses to commit their life to the teaching profession, it advocated using students in high-poverty areas as guinea pigs for an experiment in “resume-padding” for ambitious young people.
In saying these things, let me make it clear that my quarrel is not with the many talented young people who join Teach for America, some of whom decide to remain in the communities they work in and become lifetime educators. It is with the leaders of the organization, who enjoy the favor with which TFA is regarded with by captains of industry, members of Congress, the media, and the foundation world. They have used this access to move rapidly to positions as heads of local school systems, executives in charter school companies, and educational analysts in management consulting firms.
The organization’s facile circumvention of the grinding, difficult, but profoundly empowering work of teaching and administering schools has created the illusion that there are quick fixes, not only for failing schools but for deeply entrenched patterns of poverty and inequality. No organization has been more complicit than TFA in the demonization of teachers and teachers’ unions, and no organization has provided more “shock troops” for education reform strategies which emphasize privatization and high-stakes testing. Michelle Rhee, a TFA recruit, is the poster child for such policies, but she is hardly alone.
Her counterparts can be found in New Orleans (where they led the movement toward a system dominated by charter schools), in New York (where they play an important role in the Bloomberg education bureaucracy) and in many other cities.
And the elusive goal of educational equity—how well has it fared in the years Teach for America has been operating? Not only has there been little progress in the last fifteen years in narrowing the test score gap by race and class, but income inequality has become greater, in the last fifteen years than at any other time in modern American history. TFA has done nothing to promote income redistribution, reduce the size of the prison population, encourage social investment in high-poverty neighborhoods, or revitalize the arts, science, and history in the nation’s schools. TFA’s main accomplishment has been to marginally increase the number of talented people entering the teaching profession, but only a small fraction of those remain in the schools where they were originally sent.
But the most objectionable aspect of Teach for America—other than its contempt for lifetime educators—is its willingness to create another pathway to wealth and power for those already privileged in the rapidly expanding educational-industrial complex, which already offers numerous careers for the ambitious and well-connected. An organization which began by promoting idealism and educational equity has become, to all too many of its recruits, a vehicle for profiting from the misery of America’s poor.
Mark Naison is a Professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African American History, urban history, and the history of sports. His most recent book, White Boy: A Memoir, was published in the spring of 2002
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