Meet the Teach for America Resistance Movement That's Growing From Within

Meet the Teach for America Resistance Movement That's Growing From Within

A network of Teach for America alumni and corps members is organizing in Chicago this weekend, as part of the national Free Minds, Free People conference organized by the Education for Liberation Network, but this summit is more than a wistful reunion gathering. The group's aim, as encapsulated in the roundtable's title, "Organizing Resistance to Teach for America and its Role in Privatization," is no less than overthrowing—or at least overhauling—the non-profit organization's dominant role in educational reform. And who best to challenge TFA than its graduates?

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The summit is the subject of extensive coverage in The American Prospect, starting with a tremendously helpful cheat sheet of popular criticisms of the non-profit educational organization among education reform circles:

Twenty-four years running, the rap on Teach for America (TFA) is a sampled, re-sampled, burned-out record: The organization’s five-week training program is too short to prepare its recruits to teach, especially in chronically under-served urban and rural districts; corps members only have to commit to teach for two years, which destabilizes schools, undermines the teaching profession, and undercuts teachers unions; and TFA, with the help of its 501(c)4 spin-off, Leadership for Educational Equity, is a leading force in the movement to close “failing” schools, expand charter schools, and tie teachers’ job security to their students’ standardized test scores. Critics burn TFA in internet-effigy across the universe of teacher listservs and labor-friendly blogs.

Meet Beth Sondel, a former TFA member listed among the organizers of the anti-TFA gathering:

“The goal is to help attendees identify the resources they have as activists and educators to advocate for real, just reform in their communities,” says co-coordinator Beth Sondel, a 2004 TFA alum who is now a PhD student in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin. Though the organizers don’t have pre-set goals, possible outcomes range from a push for school districts not to contract with TFA to counter-recruitment of potential corps members away from the program.

Indeed, in recent months there's been no shortage of public pushback against the organization, ranging from a widely circulated letter urging new recruits to resign, to Minnesota Governor Mark Dalton's May decision to veto a bill granting funding for the program. In April, activists successfully fought for the California Commission on Teaching Credentialing to increase its training requirements for teaching English learners. And only last week, University of Minnesota grad students fought to block a Teach for America partnership with the university, blasting the program in a "No TFA at the U of M" statement. Then there was last year's eviscerating point/counterpoint in The Onion, mocking recruits' paternalistic attitudes and self-absorption. 

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But, as The Prospect's James Cersonsky points out, "no one has ever staged a coordinated, national effort to overhaul, or put the brakes on, TFA." That the movement is largely originating from the organization's own alumni base renders it all the more fascinating. 

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"As a non-TFA person, I can point out some of the weaknesses in the program, but it's far more powerful when people who are in the program can speak to that," said Anthony Cody, an outspoken California-based educator who spent 18 years as an Oakland science teacher, during which, he estimates, he worked with about 30 TFA members in a mentoring program. "It's really heartening to see teachers who come from TFA that are thinking for themselves and drawing on their experiences in the classroom to realize that there's some real significant problems with the TFA approach."

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To better the organization, Cody suggested extending the required teaching commitment and making the training process far more rigorous. Otherwise, "they're perpetuating the problems that they claim to be addressing—which is an absence of high-quality teachers."

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Tara Kini, a civil rights attorney who fought successfully to challenge a U.S. Department of Education regulation that labeled TFA members "highly qualified teachers" in 2007, described the summit as evidence that "large numbers of TFA alumni disagree with the policy positions of the organization and want to push them to change."

But when reached for comment, a Teach for America spokesperson pointed out that the organization has thousands of alumni, most of whom, obviously, won't be attending the summit. Heather Harding, the organization's senior vice president for community partnerships, special initiatives, research, and engagement, then sent along a statement.

"We continue to believe that Teach for America provides an important entry point into the field of education for committed individuals who want to make a positive difference for children," the statement read in part. "Now over 32,000 and growing, our alumni represent a broad spectrum of perspectives and opinions on how best to serve students’ needs. We welcome a diversity of opinion and rely on feedback from alumni, corps members, parents, principals, and community leaders to help us continually strengthen on program and deepen our impact."

Meanwhile, some Teach For America alumni carry their own gripes about the organization, but don't view the summit—whose goals remain admittedly vague, or still pending—as an admirable solution. Among them is Clay Cleek, a former corps member who taught reading in the South Louisiana region and now works for the private sector in Santa Fe. Cleek described his region as "chronically underperforming," estimating that only 85 of 117 initial corps members completed the two-year commitment. 

"Having a summit sounds great, and pushing back against Teach for America gets your name in the news, but it's difficult to take anyone seriously whose sole stated goal is to criticize with no expectation of formulating positive recommendations," Cleek wrote in an email. "It's very easy to book a conference room, tell anecdotes about how awful TFA is, and bemoan the influence of private money. I might enjoy participating in something like that myself, but it only amounts to self-aggrandizement and does nothing to advance the goal of improving public education.

A more productive countermovement, Cleek argued, would seek pragmatic alternatives to Teach for America rather than trying to subvert the organization itself.

"Hopefully these people don't think our education system would be better off with fewer new teachers who graduated at the top of their class," Cleek wrote, "but this is the only certain outcome I see from discouraging potential TFA recruits."

But indeed, many of Teach for America's most vicious opponents point out that the high turnover of trainees being dispatched to many of the country's most challenging school districts—often without any long-term plans to be teachers—is precisely the problem. Anthony Cody's experiences in Oakland corroborated this critique. In a typical cycle, the school would lose about half of its corps members after their second year. By the third year, half of those remaining would be gone. The problem, he explained, is 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 for policy work, law school, or business school. One study found that roughly 57 percent of corps members planned to teach for two years or less when they applied, while only 11 percent intended to make teaching a lifelong career. (TFA has claimed, however, that 36 percent remain in the classroom as teachers. But their recently announced partnership with Goldman Sachs, which provides TFA recruits with jobs at the banking firm after two years of service, doesn't entirely help their cause.)

"A big part of what we talked about [in graduate school] was schools being community hubs," said one Los Angeles-area teacher, who asked not to be identified by name. "In order to do that, you have to minimize 'churn'—the rotation of teachers and principals. And TFA contributes to churn. Their framework is about developing leaders, not teachers."

Certainly, nearly 25 years after its founding, Teach For America's decorated alumni pool is enough to invite graduates to network their way to success. ("They have graduates who are actually in significant places of power writing legislation that is working hand-in-hand to privatize education," the teacher said.) But are freshly minted TFA alumni, carrying only two years of experience in the field, qualified for leadership in education policy? The question stirs fierce debate in the education world.

"It’s troubling to me that TFA puts you in this pipeline to lead when you don’t really know a lot," the teacher said. "You could be effective, but you’re not necessarily wise."

Though never a corps member herself, the teacher has had her share of interactions with the program. When she moved to New York after graduate school, boasting high grades and a teaching award, she found the district closed to external applicants. "But they had a contract with TFA where they were still taking college graduates with no training besides doing TFA." The pattern is happening nationwide, she complained. "Meanwhile, they're laying off highly experienced teachers."

In the meantime, she worked as a private tutor for affluent students—including one who applied for Teach for America because he thought it would look good on his business-school application.

As for the summit? The irony, she said, is that many of the dissenting TFA alumni, or at least those quoted in The American Prospect piece, don't actually seem to be working as teachers themselves.

As one reader commenter remarked, "We need our best in the classrooms."