Sunday, July 14, 2013

TFA: Yup, still an Industry

A little over two years ago, I published a long form commentary about TFA based on the work of other TFA critics and researchers, such as Barbara Miner, Julian Vasquez Heilig, and Su Jin Jez. I had initially hoped to get it published elsewhere, and I submitted it widely. Since I had no takers, I went ahead and posted it myself. Its popularity surprised me--with close to 10,500 hits it is my most popular post. I still share it and it's a strong part of my education writing portfolio, but I moved on after a while. I felt like I had said my piece and I didn't want "TFA critic" to become my identity, or my obsession.

While I would likely write the piece differently now, in the two plus years since I published that post, TFA hasn't seemed to change much. Most of what I wrote is still relevant. TFA continues to grow and accumulate great wealth. It is particularly hard to see TFA in a flattering light now given sequestration, severe post-stimulus budget cuts, and the amount that TFA charges school districts despite their own robust financial health. Finally, TFA continues to refuse to remake themselves in ways that would make them more palatable to their critics. Here were, for example, some of my suggestions:
People work as paralegals before deciding to go to law school, why not have TFA candidates work as teachers’ aides and then fund their further education if they pledge to go on to teach in high-poverty schools? Why doesn't TFA start programs for top students such as this amazing one that is being phased out by Yale University? Why not have alternative certification programs that allow credit for non-traditional but still relevant and substantial experience? Why don’t we stop speaking disparagingly of our teachers from state and public universities, start recruiting them to teach in their home or high-poverty districts, and fund their teacher education and apprenticeships with loan forgiveness programs such as is offered by Sallie Mae?

I am, however, pleased to see more critical pieces about TFA popping up in the liberal media. Although there were several pieces before that, some of the most recent coverage has been spurred by a group of TFA alumni who met in Chicago around the idea of pushing back against the organization. James Cersonsky wrote about this in The American Prospect and even the Atlantic featured a decent piece about it.

Unfortunately, a response from Justin Fong, an employee of TFA's "internal communications" department who attended the conference in Chicago reflects, well, a lack of real reflection on TFA's part. While Fong expressed heartfelt appreciation of the criticism, the nuts and bolts of TFA skeptics' concerns about TFA just didn't sink in. For example, Fong opined (bolded emphasis mine):
Teach For America isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s not. For me personally, I can’t wait for the day that TFA closes its doors and is no longer relevant. That is a day when our education system finally works for everyone, not just for those with privilege and power. The ultimate victory for the organization is to become obsolete, to become no longer necessary
Teach For America has financial and political support because many people understand the value that it brings in creating a force for change of an education system that’s not working. It’s not spin. There’s a great deal of good that comes out of Teach For America—you have to settle with that.
Mr. Fong and TFA see themselves as necessary, not potentially or possibly helpful but necessary. That is quite a presumption. TFA critics believe that not only is TFA not necessary but that it's harmful. That's the whole point. And would TFA really pack up shop "when our education system finally works for everyone, not just those with privilege and power"? As I pointed out in the opening paragraph of my original piece (and I am not alone in this), this statement represents a change in TFA's mission. It began with "we help in areas with teacher shortages." Now it is "the educational system is broken, we're here to help fix it."  And increasingly, "fix it" means replacing, not complementing experienced teachers--isn't TFA in its current incarnation expanding into places where there are adequate numbers of professional teachers? Isn't the KIPP model touted as highly successful within pro-TFA circles? Wouldn't it follow, then, that TFA would no longer be necessary there?

Mr. Fong and TFA believe they are "a force for change of an educational system that's not working" and that this "brings value." There are many troubling assumptions here. First of all, is TFA a force for positive change? Does it "bring value"? TFA critics and their research would argue, no. Again, that's the point of their criticism. Second of all, while many TFA critics agree that reforms are needed, they don't agree that "the system is not working" is a useful starting point for productive reform. Reformers who begin with "the system is broken" often use that as an excuse to ignore their responsibility to find whatever is working and not break that, too. Furthermore,"you have to settle with that" does not sound as if it is in the spirit of collaboration, or like working together; it sounds like you have to believe that TFA is necessary and great, period.

If Justin Fong is meant to emblemize TFA 2.0, a kinder, gentler TFA, well, not much seems to have changed.Though not without good intentions, it's the same patronizing ideology masked in reformy teamwork! speak. You can't "peacefully co-exist" with an organization that says that you're not good at what you do and we're going to do it for you and "you have to settle with that." That's not what teamwork looks like. Alas, the more things change. . .

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