Teach for America at 25 and the Movement to Privatize Schools

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Teach for America

December 1, 2014;WBUR (NPR)

This week, NPR ran an in-depth piece about Teach for America at age 25. According to the NPR reporters (Eric Westervelt on the radio, Anya Kamenetz online), it was 25 years ago that Princetonian Wendy Kopp “made [her] masterstroke.” Her idea was to make public school teaching “an illustrious two-year postgraduate service mission rather than a safe middle-class career choice—more Peace Corps than post office.” Today, TFA counts 37,000 alumni and 10,500 members currently in the field; it’s also a top recruiter of high quality college grads.

The NPR report notes TFA’s endorsements by Presidents Bush I and Bush II, Clinton, and Obama; huge grants from philanthropies such as the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and powerful alumni that include Students First’s Michelle Rhee, District of Columbia schools chancellor Kaya Henderson, and Newark schools director Cami Anderson. As a result of TFA’s ability to place teachers into schools with only five weeks of training, NPR notes that TFA has “helped open the doors to alternative-certification programs for teachers…[so that] today 1 in 5 new teachers is certified by a path other than a bachelor’s degree or master’s in education.”

The story focuses on a number of areas where Teach for America is trying to change in response to criticisms: increasing the racial diversity of the TFA membership, considering training that goes longer than five weeks, and encouraging TFA teachers to stay in the profession for more than two years. But if we leave aside the debate over the quality of TFA’s training and teachers, the biggest issue now is TFA’s impact on public schools and its ideological, even political, agenda. TFA has become an increasingly powerful and visible cog in the education reform movement machine, which promotes the privatization of public education through the building and staffing of alternatives like charter schools, replacing public school teachers, and finding leadership positions for TFA alums, where they can push for privatization.

TFA co-CEO Matt Kramer dismisses claims, some from within the ranks of TFA alums, that TFA “acts to the detriment of public education” with the comment that these criticisms have been “blown out of proportion” and are “not representative” of the thinking of most TFA alumni. In response to charges that TFA is part of the education reform movement, which promotes market-based alternatives to public schools, Kramer responds, “We’re a leadership organization, not a political organization. […] We have no ideological positions on issues.”

But the reality is that of TFA members who are still active as teachers, 40 percent are in charter schools. While TFA says it does not displace teachers in public schools, the fact that many are teaching in charters amounts to roughly the same thing, as increasing numbers of charters are opening in districts where public school teachers are being laid off as a consequence. (For example, New Orleans fired a total of 7,500 teachers and other school employees after it closed public schools following Hurricane Katrina and reopened them as charter schools.) An alum of TFA herself, Beth Sondel of the University of Wisconsin at Madison also notes that half of the nation’s largest charter school networks have TFA ties of one sort or another.

Kramer may be reaching for modesty when he downplays the ideological agenda of TFA. The number of TFA alums who are now school principals or hold other public and private sector leadership positions of influence is quite large. To the extent that they believe, as Sondel suggests TFA believes, “that public schools are irreparably damaged, [that] bad teachers and bureaucracy are to blame, and our only salvation is by diminishing the union, innovating and creating systems of choice and competition,” TFA does have an ideology, one that appears ensconced in the education reform movement of public school privatization.—Rick Cohen

  • Scott Walter

    Rick, you write, “increasing numbers of charters are opening in districts where public school teachers are being laid off as a consequence.”

    That logically means that charter school teachers are somehow not public school teachers, but of course that’s just not true. What you presumably mean is that most charter school teachers are not paying union dues.

    Can you offer any compelling justification for calling charter school teachers not public school teachers? For that matter, is there really a justification for calling taxpayer-supported schools “public” but not privately funded schools? Do the latter contribute nothing to the public good? Are those schools more concerned with selfish private goods than the extremely powerful teachers’ unions, who are arguably the strongest political agents outside of the two political parties and who certainly put the private good of their members over the public good of children, parents, and the community?

    For evidence of that last claim, I quote you from 20 Sept. 2012 on this site: “Anyone who witnessed the debacle of the teachers union in Washington, D.C. and Miami saw horrendous union behavior aided and abetted for too long by the national unions turning a blind eye to what was happening at the locals.”

    You also mention New Orleans in this article and the thousands of “public school” teachers who were fired in one of the nation’s worst school districts because of a charter reorganization. But you don’t bother to mention or link to your own article of some months back on New Orleans’ government-run schools, where you admit there has been tremendous progress:

    ” performance on standardized math and reading has increased from 23 percent in 2007 to 57 percent in 2013 performing at grade level”

    Give us one city where charters are little used but the government schools have seen progress remotely like that. And if you can’t, please don’t act as if it is a crime that public charter schools have grown.

  • Gabrielle Durana

    I totally disagree with the perspective of this article. Reforming public schools is very difficult and it’s not surprising that TFA alum want to work at charter schools. That’s pretty much the only place in the system that has built-in flexibility.

  • sydney hunt coffin

    I feel it necessary to contribute to the comment thread, as I have been an actual public school teacher for 15 years, and for a total of 8 years in the 24th most dangerous school in the United States, according to the data, at University City HS in West Philadelphia, during the “Killadelphia” years from 2006-2013.
    I happen to be a union member, but that does not define me. I carry a Masters degree in education, and work for the national teachers institute at Yale and for the local teachers institute at UPenn, but I do not speak for them. Instead, I speak for all the kids I teach who do not go to charter schools, some of whom became my students after being expelled or “counseled out” of charter schools, as I was in 10th grade from my own school as well. My kids, many of whom are in the foster care system, some of whom come from jail, for whatever reason, many of whom have learning disabilities, and all of whom are from poverty-stricken communities, deserve better than they are getting, and there is plenty of blame to go around.
    It is certainly complicated to address the causes: charter schools? It seems clear they have drained a lot of the resources away from a focus on improving public schools, rather than abandoning them and starting up elsewhere. Please consider what would have happened if everyone went to public schools, and if all of our resources went into these schools, rather than the “divide and segregate” mode that we find ourselves in across the country, regardless of whom we blame.
    What if negotiations with unions, which are essentially protecting things like the right to a fair hearing if something happens in this complicated environment, decent wage compensation, reasonable class size (I now have 46 students in my last period, 11th grade English classroom every day, justified by a sometimes there, sometimes needed elsewhere SpEd co-teacher, due to budget cuts…) and perhaps unions are also there to bond us together as an electoral power, so that we can advocate with as much strength as Bill Gates (a privately educated man whom I nonetheless respect tremendously, and have worked for, and yet disagree with politically…) or the Waltons (who refuse to pay their employees a living wage–why wouldn’t we trust them? They have more money than most countries, and yet they squeeze their employees unmercifully, and discriminate against their female employees, so what’s not to like?…).
    So I ask again, not who is to blame, but what is the solution? Can’t we work to improve the professionalism of our teachers, their training, and their supportive networks, so that they have the flexibility which one comment suggests we don’t have? Can’t we support them better than we have by reducing class size and providing better working conditions for both students and the people responsible for looking out for them 7-11 hours a day? (My floor has no working water fountain, so I lug 5 gallon jugs of water upstairs every day and allow more than just my own students to drink from my cooler for free, at my own expense…) I’ve worked with several TFA fellows, one of whom is a high level recruiter: they were inexperienced, and it showed. They were immature in handling the responsibility of the job, and it showed. The kids often cut their classes and tried to learn something in my own. They were gone before kids had learned to trust them, and it showed.
    If teachers need to be held accountable, how can we do so with a teacher who plans to leave quite soon? If students need relationships with adults to tell them what’s really going on, depend upon them for support, and if teacher retention is so important, then why are we hiring people who by definition are not sticking around? I would not want a psychiatrist with 5 weeks training, or a doctor with 5 weeks training, and yet I am both. Do we want Police with 5 weeks training? Firemen?
    Teaching is much more subtle than being a camp counselor, and I certainly wouldn’t be so naive to think we are perfect in any way, but who is. The point is to benefit all children with a system that supports every kid, not one that only benefits those who can attend charter schools, which have been proven to be just as fraught with challenges, cheating scandals, and corruption as any public school.
    I’d rather see us improve what we’ve got than desert half the population (or more) and benefit the few that may benefit, especially if it is at the expense of citizens who serve the public good by trying to make schools better. TFA would be better as a support to public school teachers everywhere, rather than trying to replace them.