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Teach for America Apostates: a Primer of Alumni Resistance
Teach for America alumni and students speak out about the organization's questionable ideology and practices.

Teach for America Apostates: a Primer of Alumni Resistance

Teach for America alumni and students speak out about the organization's questionable ideology and practices.

Brianna stands beside the conductor’s podium in the band hall of Chicago’s Uplift High School. An engrossed audience is packed on the risers. Mirrored sunglasses obscure her expression, and her only sign of nervousness is in the movement of her hands, clasping and unclasping before her.

Brianna was a public school student in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. In the wake of the flood, whole neighborhoods were destroyed. Approximately 1,300 people had died and hundreds of thousands were yet to return. Amid all this, she had faith her schools would weather the storm.

Instead, she found that her school was one of the many consolidated into charter schools, which draw public funds but are privately managed. Thousands of school employees had been fired (a move later ruled illegal), and many of the replacements were young, lightly trained recruits from Teach for America. By 2007, nearly half of the city’s teachers were in their first three years of teaching. TFA became embedded in the fabric of the district, and one in three New Orleans students can now call a TFA recruit their teacher.

Brianna was vexed by her young new teachers, who were adversarial and fixated on data. “Everything was taken away,” Brianna said. “And then the teachers don’t even care about you.”

Complicating matters, many of the new teachers in the majority-black district were white and unfamiliar with the community. Indeed, the replacement of veteran teachers has decreased by one-third the percentage of black teachers in the district. In the novice classrooms, Brianna saw “a power dynamic type of thing,” in which bald racial hierarchies arose where classroom management failed. The teachers focused less on building relationships, more on “numbers, numbers, numbers.”

The students returned the teachers’ animus. Disciplinary actions spiked. Brianna tells of students being cuffed by police and pulled from classrooms, of classes dwindling and incarceration rising. Today, the Recovery School District boasts an out-of-school suspension rate that’s four times the national average.

Who was this corps of new teachers, so combative in their approach? Why their obsession with numbers? Whence the startling admission, “I’m here for two years, then I’m out”?

Only later would Brianna learn that they were recruited through Teach for America, a nonprofit that places thousands of new teachers in high-needs schools every year. They come armed with five weeks of summer training, committed to two years in the classroom. Founded by Princeton graduate Wendy Kopp in 1989, TFA now has some 28,000 alumni throughout the country.

“Organizing Resistance to Teach for America and its Role in Privatization”

Now, some of those alumni are denouncing the organization. They make up part of the group squeezed into a high school band hall to hear Brianna denounce their ilk. It’s the first time many of them have heard this perspective.

The event, called “Organizing Resistance to Teach for America and its Role in Privatization,” took place during the Free Minds, Free People conference from July 11-14, in Chicago. It aimed “to help attendees identify the resources they have as activists and educators to advocate for real, just reform in their communities.” Namely, resisting TFA.

The summit didn’t drop from the sky fully formed. A group of New Orleans-based parent-activists, former students, non-TFA teachers and TFA alumni collaborated for months to arrange it. Complementing their critique is a small but growing group of TFA dissidents and apostates who’ve taken their concerns to the press. Even as TFA marches into more and more classrooms throughout the country and world, a burgeoning group of heretics is nailing its theses to the door. But why are they speaking up just now?

Altruist-Turned-Skeptic Gary Rubenstein

When Gary Rubinstein joined TFA in 1991, he was motivated largely by the fact that it was “a big thing to do.” Altruism played a part – “I’m a nice person, I do care,” he says – but the novelty of it enthralled him. It was “partly like going to another country.”

In his case, that great unknown was Houston. At the time, there existed a genuine teacher shortage in Houston, as in other cities. Class sizes were enormous, and students saw strings of long-term substitutes instead of full-time teachers. TFA’s foot soldiers were greeted warmly.

A wry double-major in math and philosophy with a predilection for “David Sedaris-style” writing, Rubinstein assumed his enthusiasm and subject knowledge would translate to successful teaching. Instead, his classes were unruly and his teaching haphazard. He recalls a particular lesson in which he gave students measuring tape and told them “go measure stuff,” only to find them measuring, “let’s just say, parts of their own anatomy.”

Rubinstein found that without classroom management, it didn’t matter “how much you knew or how much you cared about the kids.” So he became a martinet. He considers himself one of the first “no excuses” teachers, subscribing to a brand of unwavering discipline many charter schools now espouse.

He recorded his observations on classroom management (now a book), and decided to put together a guide for incoming corps members he considered underprepared. He asked Wendy Kopp in an elevator for her blessing, which she granted. (They’re no longer on such amicable terms.)

Rubinstein has questioned TFA’s training model, a five-week training course called Institute, for two decades. In 1995, by then a veteran teacher by TFA standards, he began leading a workshop on classroom management, partly an excuse to splash cold water on the faces of the dewy-eyed idealists. “TFA is not giving you the real story,” he’d tell the recruits. “They’re trying to shield you from reality.” He delivered that pep talk for 11 years.

Until relatively recently, Rubinstein’s criticisms were relegated to the training he considers so inadequate, “it’s offensive.” Otherwise, he admired the thrust of TFA’s mission. He even recruited for TFA at his alma mater, Tufts. But after attending the 20-year TFA anniversary summit in 2010, his critique deepened. It wasn’t long before he wrote the blog post that made his name and initiated a genre: “Why I Did TFA, and why you shouldn’t.”

“Scrap the Map” Teacher Activist Jesse Hagopian “Did” Teach for America

It’s not common knowledge that Jesse Hagopian “did” Teach for America. “I don’t always divulge that,” he admits. The TFA badge is notoriously useful in landing jobs at McKinsey and Goldman Sachs, but it lends little cred among activists. Hagopian is of the latter camp.

He’s better known for helping to organize the successful “Scrap the MAP” campaign at Garfield High School, in Seattle, where he teaches history and advises the Black Student Union. With the support of students and parents, the teachers there boycotted the state standardized test, faced down sanctions and eventually secured the right to forgo the test. Hagopian still glows when he talks about it.

He graduated from Macalester College in 2001 after studying radical antiracist theory. “I just spent the last years analyzing these problems,” he remembers thinking. “What do I do with this?”

Hagopian, admittedly “politically unsophisticated” at the time, was attracted by TFA’s social justice language. During his five-week training in the Bronx, though, he quickly surmised that it “wasn’t the emancipatory project” that he’d hoped.

His friend and dorm-mate was a fellow black radical who “began raising all kinds of questions” about race within TFA’s pedagogy. TFA put him on an “improvement plan,” a set of sanctions that requires corps members to complete supplemental work on top of grueling Institute assignments. According to TFA:

In certain instances, a corps member may act in ways that interfere with the learning and progress of students, behaving in such a way as to give rise to concerns that s/he is not demonstrating our core values….

“We saw him as being targeted,” Hagopian says. The plan was “almost impossible to fulfill.” His friend was soon dismissed.

Hagopian soldiered on. “The bigger conversations about the purpose of it get lost,” he said, “because you’re trying to become a teacher in five weeks.”

When he entered a high-poverty school in Washington, D.C., he realized how truly unprepared he was. An innocuous show-and-tell turned into a litany of tragedies as students presented their mementos of male family members who were dead or in jail. Hagopian felt “overwhelming sorrow and panic,” unequipped to heal that grief or to help students grasp “why this happened to their families.”

At the same time, the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) illuminated TFA’s politics. He saw TFA “fall in lockstep” with NCLB, especially its reliance on standardized testing and the sanctions it forced on “failing schools.” Hagopian taught in a school reconstituted under NCLB guidelines. Its staff had been laid off and replaced. The new faculty might have been fresh-faced, but they were dreadfully unfamiliar with the community and its needs. TFA provided no means to address this gap; it had far more to say about data and assessments than race and inequality.

Hagopian puts it in stark terms: “there was nothing on standardized tests about how to end mass incarceration.”

Over the years, he cultivated a full critique of TFA, conveyed in part in his 2010 Seattle Times op-ed agitating against bringing TFA to Seattle. He feels that TFA “fits very nicely into an overall strategy” of privatizing education and diminishing critical thinking. Meanwhile, the organization glosses over intractable issues of race and inequality at the heart of American educational system.

Privileged Outsiders: Marie Levey-Pabst

Another side of his argument finds expression in Marie Levey-Pabst, a 2004 TFA alumna who pursued women’s studies and anti-racist theory in college. Now a public-school teacher in Boston, she argued on Anthony Cody’s blog that TFA isn’t only unable to prepare its corps for the complex dynamics present when poor children of color receive a teacher who is, on average, whiter and more privileged than they. Worse, the program serves as a vehicle and expression of that privilege.

At Institute, she groaned at being assigned Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Bacpack,” a standby of its genre that she had read multiple times. She asked if one introductory essay—indeed, any reading— could fully inoculate recruits from pernicious bigotries like colorblind racism and the white savior complex. Moreover, the cursory discussions left many of her fellow recruits “stuck on the idea that they aren’t racist,” precisely the danger of colorblind racism.

But the “unpacking your privilege” session has since been removed from the Institute curriculum. Surveys found that it made certain folks in TFA uncomfortable.

Levey-Pabst sees racial and economic privilege playing out in the organization’s focus on honing leadership skills, where “students of color become ‘training material’ for mostly middle- and upper-class white ‘leaders.’ ” Thus arises the “power dynamic” that Brianna described in her own classroom.

Dr. Camika Royal, another critical alumnus, connects this with perceptions of corps members as outsiders:

In New Mexico, Teach For America affiliates are called colonizers. In New Orleans, some refer to them and other reformers as carpetbaggers. In Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia…corps members have been called scabs. (Dr. Royal did not respond to an interview request.)

To Levey-Pabst, there’s “something wrong with the model” of sending privileged folks for a two-year jaunt to “see how the other half lives” before securing well-paid leadership positions. (Not all TFA alumni do this, to be fair. TFA says a third “remain in the classroom.”) This brief spurt of noblesse oblige, she argues, “denies the collective ownership of the problem of inequality,” and affirms an elitist approach grounded in charity rather than social change.

“It’s really sad if that’s the best we, as a society, can do.”

Joining TFA to Get a Job: T. Jameson Brewer

At a certain point, the mission of TFA shifted from filling vacancies. As an odd result, some recruits now come armed with education degrees and teaching certificates. They join TFA to get a job.

T. Jameson Brewer graduated from Valdosta State University in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in education just as the Great Recession hit. Georgia instituted a hiring freeze in 2008, and the next year, with no prospects of finding the job for which he was trained and licensed, he began substitute-teaching.

By fall 2009, Brewer’s situation was bleak. Applying to TFA was “a matter of desperation.” He was accepted into the 2010 corps “excited about being part of the movement” to end the so-called achievement gap.

“That lasted three of four days,” he chuckles.

Early on, he criticized the pedagogical model TFA espoused, which they call the Academic Impact Model, a pyramid with teacher mindsets and actions at the bottom and resulting student outcomes on top. It leaves no space for whether some nights a student goes hungry, whether she’s experienced the trauma of a death in the family or a natural disaster. TFA’s manual, Teaching as Leadership, holds, “Highly effective teachers … begin with the assumption that their actions and inactions are the source of student learning and lack of learning.”

Brewer, a blunt and uncompromising dissenter, chafed at this model. “The staff would get together and talk about how to handle these people,” Brewer says of critics like himself. They’d plunk him down in with groups of “stronger corps members” to improve his attitude. “I don’t think they were responding to my criticisms,” he says, but “simply trying to further indoctrinate others and myself.”

By his own account, he was a good teacher. Visitors frequented the back of his classroom, whom regional leadership invited to show off star recruits. “I was very quick to tell them, look, if I’m I good teacher, it has very little to do with my TFA training.”

Brewer left the classroom after two years, and is now a doctoral student at the University of Illinois, where he studies the impact of neoliberal reforms in education. He sees TFA as complicit with the forces that are “injecting free-market capitalism” into education. On Anthony Cody’s blog, he describes TFA as part of a “neoliberal hyper-accountability movement.”

Joining TFA only to secure a coveted teaching position, then becoming disillusioned by the ideological thrust of its methods and affiliations, Brewer reflects the transformation of TFA into a political force.

The Evolution of TFA into a “Huge Corporate Organization”

To understand the arc of TFA from the early years to the present requires a long view. Alex Caputo-Pearl, who served in the inaugural corps in 1990, provides such a view. He still teaches in Los Angeles and serves in the leadership of a progressive union faction. He’s watched TFA evolve from a remedy for “honest-to-goodness teacher shortages” to a “huge corporate organization.” By the early 2000s, he considered TFA “part of a constellation of organizations” – charter operators, foundations, advocacy groups – “that were promoting a version of privatization in schools.”

Concurrent with TFA’s development, the education reform movement of the last two decades has picked up momentum, pushing charter school expansion, causing record numbers of school closures, and advocating increasingly data-driven accountability measures. That growth has prompted greater scrutiny of TFA’s political role.

TFA as a Charter Reserve Army

First, there’s TFA as charter reserve army. TFA has been integral to the growth of charter schools, to which a third of its recruits are deployed. Some of the largest charter management organizations have been founded by alumni, including KIPP schools, IDEA charters, YES prep and Rocketship Charters. These schools need the steady IV drip of fresh TFA blood because they hemorrhage teachers. Charter employees leave in far greater numbers than those of public schools; they’re twice as likely to quit the profession outright.

The evidence is mixed and unconvincing that charters better train kids to bubble the right answers on standardized tests than public schools. The newest nationwide CREDO study shows some minor improvement for charters, but the results have been called “so small as to be regarded, without hyperbole, as trivial.”

Finally, charters don’t teach the same kids. As a 2011 study of TFA wunderkind KIPP schools found, charters generally serve fewer students with special needs and English language learners while experiencing higher attrition rates than public schools. A Nashville KIPP school recently raised hackles by losing droves of students, many with special needs, just before state tests.

TFA as Union-Busting Scab Brigade

Closely linked to the criticism of TFA’s role in charter schools is what Jesse Hagopian describes as TFA “being used as a bludgeon against the unions.” Many education reform organizations with links to TFA scowl at unions or have some direct interest in their nationwide diminution, like the aggressively anti-union Walton family and its immense foundation. Some charter supporters draw a direct line between their opposition to unions and support of charters.

Meanwhile, the many TFA teachers who are unionized weaken the stability of local unions by their transience and contribute to the perceived deprofessionalization of teaching. The strength of unions lies in part in their claims to certain skills conferred by education and experience. When gateways to the profession are diminished, so is union bargaining power.

TFA as Buckshot in The Cannon of Free-Market Education Reform

TFA proclaims itself agnostic in matters of policy, the record of its acolytes tells a different story. TFA sends star recruits through leadership pipelines such as the affiliated Leadership for Education Equity, to become “transformational leaders,” all part of TFA’s broader mission of “fueling an educational revolution.” It prides itself on “producing education entrepreneurs;” 15 percent of which are TFA alumni, according to a Harvard study.

A number of influential TFA alumni staff organizations that advocate for test-based teacher evaluations, support harsh accountability measures or challenge unions. They include organizations like Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst, the National Council on Teacher Quality and Educators for Excellence, to name a few.

Other alumni have gone into office and administration. There’s John White, current New Orleans superintendent; Michelle Rhee, whose brashaccountability” measures as D.C. superintendent led to the mayor’s ouster and likely led to widespread cheating; Nate Snow, now executive director of TFA in Connecticut, who helped engineer the illegal state takeover of the Bridgeport school board; Kevin Huffman, who as Tennessee’s state education commissioner designed a much-loathed policy that slashes teacher pay; etc.

What emerges from these affiliations is an outline of an unarticulated politics that aligns with free-market reforms advocated by the likes of the Walton, Gates and Broad Foundations – three of TFA’s biggest funders. They’re the same policies that unapologeticallyseek to profit from public education.

Practical vs. Ideological Criticisms: Liars Out to Get Rich and Powerful

There’s reason to separate practical criticisms of TFA from the ideological. But Alex Caputo-Pearl sees one rooted in the other, as he elucidated in a New York Times op-ed. He argues that “the ideological direction that a lot of us critique is generated, replicated and strengthened year after year by the limited two- to three-year experiences” of corps members. Their short time in schools instills faith in “quick fixes” such as value-added teacher evaluation, rather than local, long-term improvement projects.

But others have more pressing reasons to swing an ideological hammer at TFA. This year, Chicago Public Schools closed an unprecedented 50 schools and just laid off more than 1,000 educators. Meanwhile, the district has approved a 33 percent increase in new TFA recruits, now numbering 570. This inextricable tangle of TFA and district policy opens the organization up to political critique from those whose livelihoods are threatened by reforms. Chicago special-education teacher Katie Osgood’s fervent open letter to new TFA recruits has gotten more than 75,000 hits. Her message rings with moral urgency: “Chicago TFA first year teachers, you MUST refuse these placements.”

When it comes to TFA dissidents, there are pickers and bashers. Those like Dr. Camika Royal and Marie Levey-Pabst pick at aspects of TFA that seem practically or culturally unsound. Bashers wield an ideological club. In their most charitable reading, they see TFA as a tool wielded by larger privatizing interests. Jesse Hagopian, Jameson Brewer and Alex Caputo-Pearl are bashers.

Gary Rubinstein, whose popular blog makes him the most prominent voice among TFA dissidents, has evolved from picker to a basher. Unlike other critical alumni, he doesn’t talk much about race. He never invokes a “neoliberal agenda,” claiming he doesn’t understand the “neoliberal” qualifier. But at the 20-year Anniversary Summit in 2010, after enduring a cavalcade of free-market education reformers – Michelle Rhee, KIPP’s founders, Arne Duncan – he had an epiphany.

“I don’t recognize this organization,” he recalls thinking. “All I see is a bunch of liars who are getting themselves rich and powerful.”

Rubinstein has since become a bugbear of TFA claims, eager to offer his ownremedies. He seems to enjoy the attention. In a post called “The Three Biggest TFA Lies,” he elucidates what he sees as their most egregious deceptions.

1. The training is adequate.

2. The magical power of high expectations.

3. The existence of miracle TFA teachers/schools/districts.

On the first charge, ample empirical evidence shows that credentialed first-year teachers outperform TFA teachers, or at least that TFA teachers do no better. A summary of peer-reviewed studies concludes “students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers.” Another study puts it glibly: “We found what might be expected of those who choose to do complex work, namely, that those who trained longer and harder to do that work do it better.”

Moreover, few of the studies take into full account the deleterious effects of teacher turnover, most keenly felt in low-income schools sensitive to instability. A 2004 study found that a revolving-door effect, not teacher shortages, created staffing pitfalls in disadvantaged schools. Less than half of TFA teachers stay in placement schools past their two years, and upwards of 80% are gone after five.

Rubinstein also bashesaway at “miracle” claims, the apocryphal stories that suffuse TFA promotional material. In his “Biggest Lies” post, Rubinstein examines the claims of TFA alumnus Jeremy Beard’s IDEA charter school in Texas. The school boasted of sending 100 percent of its first three graduating classes to college, a feat trumpeted in TFA training literature. Through a public database, Rubinstein found that of the 69 sixth-graders who entered in the school’s inaugural year, 27 graduated the high school. Two-thirds “disappeared.” This phenomenon isn’tuncommon.

More broadly, Rubinstein’s challenges confront TFA’s implicit contention that higher teacher quality will “solve” the achievement gap. They often pose this as a chicken-and-egg problem between educational attainment and poverty, expressed in the sententious declamation that “poverty is not destiny.”

While this may be trivially true, a healthy body of evidence beginning with Bowles and Gintis’ “Schooling in Capitalist America” argues that a child’s socioeconomic level at birth better predicts her future tax bracket and educational attainment than how well her teachers prepare her for standardized tests.

Most recently, a study found that during the past several decades, the widening achievement gap has tracked closely with widening income inequality. As the researcher explains in The Times, “we blame failing schools and the behavior of the poor for trends that are really the result of deepening income inequality and the behavior of the rich.”

Marie Levey-Pabst echoes this when she argues that “the glorification of TFA, and the ‘super teacher’ myth in general, creates a distraction from the real problem” of socioeconomic inequality.

Perhaps that’s by design. Through TFA, the dominant economic order tests its notions of individualist success, in which “the best and brightest” empower students to pull themselves up by their test scores. TFA provides the deepest point of contact between the merited and the underserved, between Harvard grads and poor children of color. Chosen emissaries of the corporate and financial elite, corps members enter poor communities to deliver a dose of optimism, the goodwill of philanthropists and, if the kids can rightly make use of the charity, a promise of emancipation. If TFA is a failure, a ruse or an unwitting subterfuge, so too is the American economic order.

TFA Dissidents Organize: Getting Students’ and Parents’ Stories Heard

Gary Rubinstein has a mission. “They just can’t stop lying. And as fast as they lie, I will continue to reveal those lies.”

Not all TFA alumni share Rubinstein’s views. The experiences of these dissidents who have taken their dissent to the press aren’t those of every TFA alumnus.

But critical alumni, already speaking out in greater numbers, aren’t the only ones challenging TFA. Communities throughout the country have been questioning and rebuffing TFA. In New Orleans, resistance to TFA has been grass-roots and growing. And TFA has noticed.

“Organizing Resistance to Teach for America,” the summit in Chicago, resulted from that work. Through it, these dissidents are for the first time in conversation with each other; Rubinstein, Hagopian and Caputo-Pearl were in contact with the organizing group.

The organizers insist, though, that their movement will not succeed with only alumni behind the wheel. Believing their resistance shouldn’t replicate the hierarchies of the system it seeks to upend, the group’s TFA alumni organizers refused an interview for this piece. The group, as a whole, offered this:

Though we all have suffered in different ways, our resistance to Teach For America is unified and includes parents, veteran teachers, students, and TFA alumni. We made a collective decision not to participate in interviews that only featured TFA alumni voices because it is the diversity of this movement that gives us our strength.

The organizers emphasize that the summit isn’t about stigmatizing corps members (and other dissidents also dismiss this notion). Nor do they wish to pontificate on the sincerity of TFA recruits. It’s about opening dialog between various parties affected by TFA then planning action.

So after Brianna’s narrative, we split up into Story Circles. The process allows participants two minutes to tell their story without commentary or interruptions.

I introduce myself as a 2010 TFA alumnus who taught eighth-grade English in a public school in Bridgeport, Connecticut. I was a naïve idealist when I joined, my head full of Frantz Fanon and a dog-eared copy of American Apartheid in my hands.

I tell them how Brianna’s story gave expression to the inchoate guilt and contrition I carry from the classroom. I tell them about almost successfully parsing my role as a privileged, poorly trained white person from halfway across the country teaching students of color in a high-needs school. Like other dissidents, I begrudged TFA’s anemic approach to race. But neither was I impeccable.

I tell them about the moment in my first month teaching when I smashed a plastic clipboard to the ground in frustration. It rang out like a gunshot. By the end of that first year I had found some footing, but no miracles had transpired. The kids mostly tolerated me, and all four students in the creative writing club called me “Mr. D.” in a tone that approached respect. Data showed average growth.

I tell them how in my second year I gradually abandoned TFA’s data-and-discipline approach and attempted a more humanizing pedagogy. I resolved never to raise my voice. I organized a student government, which led to a trip to Washington, D.C. Students opened up to me about experiences of racism in school, fears of gang violence, misgivings about Peeta and Katniss.

Meanwhile I developed a thorough, empirically grounded critique of Teach for America’s pedagogical model and, my two years up, promptly left. I’m aware of the hypocrisy, I insist, to nods from the circle.

My two minutes are up. One of the young women in the circle, whose nametag says Beatriz, has been gazing at me throughout, a sort of patient reproach on her face.

When it’s her turn she says she’s a recent college graduate involved in youth programs in Chicago. She had TFA teachers when she was in high school. Her eyes find the floor and start to water. One teacher would stroll in 15 minutes late with a Starbucks cup in hand and berate the students for their indolence. When Beatriz struggled, the teacher informed her she’d just never pass math. “I don’t know why I’m crying,” Beatriz says. We nod. I nod. What else can I do?

Surely not all TFA teachers are this atrocious. But how often does one hear from Beatriz and Brianna?

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