30 Years of Teach For America Shows How Reform Movements Can Become Co-Opted

The 30-year anniversary of Teach For America (TFA), the controversial organization that places recent college graduates as teachers in urban and rural schools, came and went this spring with little fanfare. TFA will celebrate the milestone in February 2021 with a summit, and this year’s Summer Institute, five weeks of teacher training that many TFA corps members and educators find woefully inadequate, will move online. This year’s 3,000 new recruits will, presumably, enter classrooms in the highest-need schools, amid the chaos of the pandemic, with no student teaching experience.

Critics of Teach For America have long questioned the role racism plays in the way the organization recruits, trains and places TFA corps members in public and charter schools. Recently, TFA alumni (as the organization calls those who finish their mandated two-year teaching stint) circulated an online petition asking supporters to help “End TFA’s Enabling of Racist Educators Now.” They cite the common awareness among corps members that active TFA teachers express and exhibit racist behavior.

But is it possible to stop enabling racist educators when the entire organization is built on the foundational assumption that Black and Brown communities need white people to solve their problems for them?

The murder of George Floyd and the weeks of ongoing protests against police brutality and systemic racism have provoked a national reckoning that needs to include recognition of the racist and white supremacist underpinnings of Teach For America. 

Teach For America has created a national jobs program for children of privilege that has worked out very well for TFA corps members and alumni as they go on to lucrative and high-flying careers in science, medicine, policy, law, politics and education. Meanwhile, with its associated support for charter schools, TFA has contributed to weakening public schools for the most vulnerable students. It has failed to keep its own promise that “one day” all students will have equal access to an excellent education. Thirty years and billions of dollars invested in the program later, the achievement gap between white students and students of color has barely budged.

Teach For America’s displacement of experienced, certified and culturally competent teachers of color with mostly white, mostly uncertified, inexperienced teachers has done a grave disservice to the students TFA corps members teach. When new teachers with no background in education and only five weeks of training enter a classroom in some of the hardest to teach schools, they are often encountering both failure and children of color for the first time. When they are unable to teach effectively, it is easy to blame the children, their families, the school culture and teacher unions.

Rapport with children — and all the things that go along with it, such as confidence, timing, body language, tone of voice and the ability to de-escalate conflict — cannot be learned overnight. To compensate for inexperience, TFA’s training places heavy emphasis on highly structured classroom management techniques and expects corps members to adhere to them. They also emphasize raising scores on standardized tests as a goal that can be readily understood and measured.

This stance toward teaching deeply influenced TFA alumni who went on to found charter school networks like KIPP, Rocketship Education, IDEA and YES Prep. Charter school leaders and TFA alumni have also influenced thinking about schools on the national level, leading to more restrictive and more punitive schools for the most vulnerable children. The strict focus on raising standardized test scores has led to the elimination of recess, arts instruction, libraries and nurses in underfunded schools. Enforcement of uniform codes, suspensions for minor infractions, lack of support for special education students, silent lunch, silent hallways, walking on lines — all are common charter malpractices that feed the school-to-prison pipeline.

One of the most insidious aspects of Teach For America is the way it uses words like “choice” — a word with positive associations for most progressives — and perverts its meaning to falsely align with liberal values.

Nowhere has that been more true than in New Orleans, where TFA was integral to the corporatized, privatized takeover of the entire public school system post-Hurricane Katrina. When 7,500 education workers, most of them Black women, were fired after the schools were shut-down, TFA teachers were brought in to replace them as well as to create and lead charter schools. New Orleans does not now have any traditional, community-based public schools. The promise of the all-charter district was “school choice,” but parents who want to send their kid to a school in their neighborhood that is overseen by a democratically elected school board no longer have that choice in New Orleans.

When Teach For America and its associated organizations (New Schools For New Orleans, KIPP, Stand For Children) colluded in the takeover of New Orleans public schools, the language of “civil rights” was sanctimoniously invoked to justify creating schools that pushed out Black teachers and leaders and used “no excuses” discipline policies to punish Black and Brown children. School reform was said, over and over, to be the “civil rights issue of our time.”

Charter school advocates like Wendy Kopp, Michelle Rhee and John White who are associated with TFA — along with white billionaires bank rolling charter schools, such as Bill and Melinda Gates, Eli Broad, Betsy DeVos and the Waltons — all have used the rhetoric of civil rights to impose their school privatization and high-stakes testing agenda on Black and Brown students. Many African American political and educational leaders employed this rhetoric, too, as they threw their support behind charter schools and took in piles of campaign cash and grant money from charter-supporting billionaires.

Meanwhile, the grassroots public school alumni, parent, student and teacher activists in communities targeted for charter school takeover were silenced, smeared and hopelessly out-spent in down-ticket school board elections. Most relevant to today is the way TFA and the charter school movement weaponized the word “reform.”

True reform cannot be imposed on communities from outside. White people cannot decide for Black and Brown communities how, where, when and why school reform should take place. TFA and charter schools have used the banner of “reform” to make public schools worse for the very people they claimed to want to help.

Engaged community members must have the first and last voice as we begin to radically reimagine education in the wake of the current pandemic. Otherwise the process will be ripe for the kind of privatized fixes that beset public education in the last 20 years. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is already using the pandemic to strengthen private and religious schools. Charter schools have double-dipped as they accepted coronavirus relief meant for public schools and aid meant for small businesses.

Neoliberal political actors in New Orleans used the wreckage left by Hurricane Katrina to deliberately weaken and dismantle public education, public transportation, public libraries, public housing and public health care, the very resources working poor people rely on to access opportunities and maintain a semblance of dignity. The result was a whiter, wealthier and more expensive city. Fifteen years after the privatization of our schools, our students still score at or near the bottom on every national and local measure of success.

New Orleans is the poster child for disaster capitalism. Disaster response and the very real need for social change can and will be perverted to serve the interests of the white and the privileged without maximum community involvement and oversight.

The microcosm of post-Katrina New Orleans has hard lessons for the global and national response to the pandemic. Privatizers, capitalists and education reformers are already salivating over the opportunity to take education entirely online and get rid of pesky real life teachers and their unions, benefits and pensions once and for all. Those who fashion themselves as allies and experts — academics, not-for-profits, think tankers, corporations, billionaires and the commentariat — need to get out of the way and let the communities themselves lead the efforts in education.