Teach for America and neoliberalism in education

A very telling quote from the book by religious scholar Sarah Sentilles, Breaking Up With God (see particularly pages 78-9).

Editor’s Note: This post comes from my my radical friend, only calling himself Sir Moneypants. Still a good post, regardless.

Teach for America. I keep hearing about Teach for America, which is described by the Knight Foundation (which gave it $6 million in grant money) as supposedly helping “close the achievement gap in the county’s highest-need schools” and described by the Walton Family Foundation as “developing the education leader of tomorrow” while it is defended against “untrue” criticism. [1] I researched into Teach for America (TFA) to find out the reality behind this organization and to answer one main question: is the TFA really supporting/pushing for a neoliberal and corporatist form of education in the United States?

I start with what religious scholar Sarah Sentilles, abeit a person who seems to hold a centre left viewpoint, said about her experience working for the TFA in Los Angeles. [2] She writes that she applied to work for TFA because she wanted to do something that made a difference but that she encountered one teacher who told her that TFA

“undermines teaching as a profession and turns what should be a right–access to an excellent education–into a charity project, sending do-good, well-intentioned, untrained teachers into classrooms that need the best, most well-trained teachers.”

At the time, Sentilles ignored this argument, getting professors from elsewhere to give her recommendations. Later, Sentilles explains how she designed lesson plans for her “imaginary students,” which she turned in with little comment, how she was worried people would judge her in Compton because she was white, that she had to take drug tests to work in a Compton school, and that she was picked as “the bilingual teacher,” even though she could speak barely any Spanish. Finally she explains how she and follow other “TFA corps members” were angry and anxious about TFA, knowing it was “fucked up,” that their students “were being screwed, and that we were part of that screwing,” all while she felt ashamed that she felt fat because she knew some of her students “never had enough to eat.” It seems clear that Sentilles felt, looking back, that her “savior complex” and racial privilege, white privilege to be exact, was reinforced by working as a part of TFA, not chipped away by it. Later Sentilles openly admits this, writing that she was “becoming aware of my complicity in oppression, realizing I had benefited from the very system that was harming my students in Compton.”

Building on this, I think it is important to use two other stories by people who formerly worked at TFA. One of these stories, published in The Atlantic in 2013, is by Olivia Blanchard. Blanchard writes that one of the cornerstones of TFA’s philosophy is the idea of “closing the achievement gap” and she says that while closing this gap, in an effort to fight “America’s educational inequality,” is a laudable goal, there is a unspoken logic that “current, non-TFA teachers and schools are failing at the task of closing the achievement gap, through some combination of apathy or incompetence.” She continues by noting that in TFA seminars, part of the short five week training of future teachers, there is a subtext that “only you can fix what others have screwed up.” She also says that while she “appreciated TFA’s apparent confidence in me as a leader,” she assumed she would “learn the concrete steps I needed to achieve this transformation” but she instead was “immersed in a sea of jargon, buzzwords, and touchy-feely exercises.” She continued by saying that the “TFA had created a system that caused a rift between corps members and traditional teachers,” that she wasn’t “alone in my trouble with student behavior,” and that TFA teachers were actually very alone in terms of support for their teaching plans. She also explained that TFA training at the “Institute” is inadequate, that TFA encourages “its teachers to base their classes’ “big goals” around standardized-test scores,” and that there is  “pressure within TFA to produce proof of student gains without much oversight or guidance.”

There was another story by Matt Barnum, who formerly worked with the TFA, who called for it close its doors. Barnum wrote that while “TFA has had a huge…impact on education since it started more than two decades ago” it has, in his mind, run its course. He explains that TFA’s original missions are to “help understaffed school districts fill teaching positions with talented, energized college graduates, and…to create a broader education advocacy and awareness movement” but that TFA’s  “impact is fading.” He explains that this is because TFA corps members in some areas are replacing “veteran teachers,” that “many schools have become overly reliant on TFA as a teacher pipeline,” and that TFA had expenses of over $220 million in 2011, with big amounts of money going to “recruiting and selecting corps members…management and general…[and] alumni support,” meaning that “$33 million is spent to doing a poor job teaching corps members to teach.” He also argues that TFA has reached “a critical mass on this point” and that while “TFA has changed the education world for the better,” in his view, “TFA has had a good run, but today…it is time to retire.”

I could go on and mention other personal stories from former TFA corps members, but I think that is enough for now. Instead, it is better to dig a little deeper on TFA since it is evident there are strong criticisms of the organization itself rather than just personal experiences, which are undoubtedly important. [3] In an article in the Huffington VerizonPost, one writer notes that they are “not interested in TFA” because the TFA “drastically underprepares its recruits for the reality of teaching” and it is, in their view, “working to destroy the American public education system” since it, in a fundamental way, “undermines the American public education system from the very foundation by urging the replacement of experienced career teachers with a neoliberal model of interchangeable educators and standardized testing.” The writer also argues that “TFA is working directly against the interests of teachers, students, and communities alike,” participating neoliberal school reform, and that current TFA corps members should “reconsider their decision to be part of this program.” The most interesting aspect of TFA was not the description by Forbes of it taking in $318 million dollars a year, but it was a recent article in Bloomberg News noting that more than 87 percent of “TFA teachers say they don’t plan on remaining teachers throughout their careers” which compares with “26.3 percent of non-TFA teachers working in the same subjects, grades, and schools,” which shows “attrition issues that…seem to be hitting TFA teachers” hard. [4] For me, this is very telling as indicates to me that there there is a fundamental problem with TFA itself.

This fundamental problem is not much of a surprise since TFA is allied with the corporate sector in more ways than one. Only earlier this year, Gary Cohn, the president of Goldman Sachs, which is the “largest non-academic hirer of Teach for America alumni in New York City,” praised TFA “for the nonprofit’s work in the American public-school system.” If that isn’t troubling, consider that their financial backers, other than numerous foundations, include big banks such as Wells Fargo and Bank of America, and numerous other corporate entities including, but not limited to Visa, FedEx, Coca-Cola, ExxonMobil, Kaplan, Comcast/NBC Universal, and AT&T. Even a Reuters article on this subject points out such corporate support, noting that TFA not only sends “a third of its recruits to privately run charter schools, but that in its early years, TFA got grants from numerous corporations and foundations while one of its biggest funders was “the Walton family, heirs to the Walmart fortune,” and that Wendy Kopp who funded TFA “earns $375,000 a year, [and] supervises 1,800 employees — including a small army of recruiters.” [5] The article also said that critics “find TFA’s embrace of charters troubling” and that “when these charter students ring up good test scores, nearby public schools look increasingly bad by comparison” which can cause such public schools to either be privatized or shut down. To me, the specifics explained in the Reuters article and the financial backers of the TFA, is deeply troubling for a “nonprofit” which has grown from 400 “corps members” in the 1990s to over 11,000 “corps members,” at the present, with these members teaching over a million students by their own numbers.

It gets even worse. And I’m not talking about the people who try to sway potential or existing TFA corps members, a.k.a future or existing teachers, working under the TFA umbrella, into leaving the program as argued here and here. Rather, as S.E Smith wrote in The Daily Dot, TFA “recruits graduates of elite universities for a two-year commitment teaching in schools serving primarily underprivileged communities,” and while their arguments speak to issues within “the American education system” which has a “corporatist culture based on performance metrics rules, and individualized education appeals,” but that “providing student teachers with an unrealistic training setting in no way prepares them for the stress of actual classroom conditions, and it doesn’t help when when it comes to serving their students effectively.” Smith continues by noting that TFA corps members “struggled with rigid, sometimes militaristic school environments and issues like school violence” which they hadn’t been prepared for, and that “many TFA Corps members are white men coming from privileged backgrounds” which gives the TFA “a whiff of the White Savior.” The article also notes that the TFA is “also used as a springboard by many alums for getting into…other fields, serving as little more than a resume-builder,” and that TFA’s marketing “undermines traditionally-trained educators and the education system.” At the same time, after the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), TFA fell in line, especially following “its reliance on standardized testing” and it is also part of the efforts to further privatize education which includes promoting charter schools, being anti-union, and so on.

I could go on and on, writing and citing all the articles I found about TFA. [6] But I won’t. It seems clear that the Teach for America “nonprofit” is just part of the neoliberal effort to privatize education, not only by supporting charter schools, but also by making schools dependent on the TFA as a way for teachers to come to their schools, and making teachers interchangeable like gears in a machine rather than living, breathing human beings. [7] This doesn’t mean everyone in the TFA is a horrible person but rather that those in whatever level of the TFA, the “corps members,” those sitting on the board of directors, top management, recruiters, and so on, are part of an oppressive system that generally hurts people of color and benefits those with white skin. There is no doubt that even though there are corps members who are people of color, the TFA is not only as an institution pushing policies which support a racist and white supremacist system, but it is part of the institutionally racist school system in the US. As Bruce Dixon put it once, “Teach For America is part of an elite bipartisan scam to privatize public education, starting, and perhaps ending with the inner city.” [8] While this article is only a start for further criticisms of TFA, hopefully it encourages people to look further and challenges their perceived notions about the TFA.


[1] Defenses of Teach for America are wide-ranging. Wendy Kopp, the founder and chairman of Teach for America, wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post, in which she said that TFA “has enlisted more than 47,000 individuals to commit two years to teaching in some of America’s neediest schools” since 1991, when TFA was founded, that it is connected to “a global network called Teach for All,” that TFA is purportedly “tackling the complex problem of educational inequity” and that some of the criticisms “is based on misrepresentation and toxic rhetoric” while TFA is often, in her mind, “condemned without consideration of the facts.” Kopp also claimed that TFA is “working hard to support our teachers to provide students with the world-class educations they will need to fulfill their true potential” and that “the impact of Teach for America is clear” in communities of “marginalized kids.” Kopp finally claimed that  “this country [America] is failing our kids…it isn’t changing kids’ lives or giving them the best chance to fulfill their potential.” Beyond this, Conor P. Williams of the neoliberal New America Foundation claimed that “everything about Teach for America is being subjected to internal debate, from the length of the five-week training and two-year placements to the very language it uses to describe its mission and impact” which he claimed was not “entirely fair.” Williams also wrote that “TFA has long been an organization on the move” and supposedly “neither a lever for dramatically improving or ruining U.S. public education” (not true at all). Williams wrote another article on a site run by the New America Foundation where he also defended TFA again. Finally, the horrid National Review claimed that “Teach for America…produces better outcomes than the comparable teachers students would otherwise get…[and that it] helps students, especially in math achievement,” among other claims. At the same time, Fast Company in a 2008 profile (written presumably by TFA), which filed TFA under the category of “social capitalists,” claimed that TFA had a mission “to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting our nation’s most promising future leaders in the effort” and is supposedly an effort to “expand educational equity,” and so on.

[2] For this paragraph, pages 67-9, 72-4, 76-8, and 85-6 of Sentilles’s book, Breaking Up With God: A Love Story are used as a source.

[3] In a 2013 article in The Guardian, it is noted that TFA is criticized as destabilizing “schools and communities,” that TFA’s “seven-week training program is insufficient,” and that it “disenfranchises communities.” The article also argues that “the organization [TFA] has long used data to defend criticisms, though many feel the reports are skewed and a fair study comparing a TFA teacher to a traditionally trained teacher doesn’t yet exist.” In an article in The Atlantic‘s ‘The Wire’ on the same conference, it is noted that critics of TFA are interesting either in “overthrowing—or at least overhauling—the non-profit organization’s dominant role in educational reform,” which is in line with “public pushback against the organization,” and that many “who join Teach for America don’t actually want to be teachers in the first place, instead using the program as a prestigious stepping stone.”

[4] See the article in Bloomberg News titled “Most Teach For America Instructors Plan to Flee Teaching,” March 9, 2015.

[5] See article in Reuters titled “Has Teach for America betrayed its mission?,” August 16, 2012.

[6] For other articles, see “Why I Stopped Writing Recommendation Letters for Teach for America,” “This Is What Happens When You Criticize Teach for America,” “Testing Support for TFA and KIPP: Whose Children Matter?,” “Teach for America: The Hidden Curriculum of Liberal Do-Gooders,” “No pay from TFA (Teach for America),” “Has Teach for America reached its Waterloo?,” “Why Teach For America Is Not Welcome in My Classroom,” “Alternatives to Teach for America,” “Wendy Kopp’s Lesson Plan for America” (for a perspective from Wendy Kopp), and “Students to Teach for America CEOs: You Are ‘Complicit’ in Attacks on Public Education.”

[7] One could also say that to some degree the TFA-model of education is corporatist since it “accepts the ongoing trend toward increased reliance on public corporation.” But it is evident that getting the TFA involved in the educational process is fulfilling the definition of privatization, which is, in terms of education, turning over a public service “to the interests of a particular person, group or corporation,” in this case the TFA to be exact. It might not necessarily be total privatization, if its not a charter school, but it is no doubt partial privatization.

[8] The right-wing and neoliberal American Enterprise Institute noted that TFA had “increasing presence on Capitol Hill” by the 2000s and that “it was primarily luck that TFA was able to escape the NCLB process unscathed.” They also note in their report, which is not surprisingly pro-TFA, written by Alexander Russo, that “dramatic increases in the alternative certification sector raise questions about TFA’s outsized role in teacher quality policymaking decisions,” that the American Federation of Teachers came to TFA’s aid in 2001 along with politicans such as Hillary Clinton, Chris Van Hollen, Lamar Alexander and Mike Castle spearheaded “the effort to gain support for TFA’s funding initiatives” in the 2000s, and supported by the Obama administration.


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