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Teach For America’s Defenders and Detractors Are Both Wrong

Recent news coverage has sparked a resurgent—and deeply divisive—debate over TFA
By Jeffrey R. Henig — June 25, 2019 5 min read
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On June 18th, ProPublica published a news story with the headline “How Teach For America Evolved Into an Arm of the Charter School Movement.” Some sensibilities were bruised.

The story was about the evolution of Teach For America away from its founding mission “to tap idealistic graduates of elite universities to teach at traditional public schools in high-poverty areas” into “an informal but vital ally of the charter school movement.” (Disclosure: I was briefly quoted in this article.) As evidence of this shift, ProPublica reporter Annie Waldman described the many ways TFA connects to the education reform movement, including naming its wealthy donors who have also been prominent funders of charter schools. Waldman’s revelation concerns the Walton Family Foundation. In 2013, Walton gave a grant to TFA, reimbursing the organization for every teacher it placed in a charter school 50 percent more than it paid for a teacher placed in a traditional public school.

Reactions to the story were immediate, strong, and deeply divided. Some celebrated the article for unmasking a destructive alliance between TFA and forces angling to replace traditional public schools with more privatized alternatives. “Damn, ProPublica has become invaluable in a short space of time,” declared Charles Pierce, a left-of-center pundit. Diane Ravitch, arguably the nation’s foremost critic of the contemporary education reform movement, blogged that it was “an eye-popping article, an exemplar of investigative reporting.”

But more prevalent were commenters rallying to TFA’s defense on Twitter. Andy Smarick, a prominent conservative voice on education issues, called the article “unfortunate advocacy journalism.” Joanne Weiss, a former chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, criticized the article for its “subtle juxtaposition of facts, combined with skillful word choice” that “breeds contempt and distrust.” Arbor Brothers, a foundation launched by two TFA alums that emphasizes attacking the causes of poverty, labeled the article “a rambling mess.” Trace Urdan, an investment banker and strategy consultant who follows the education industry, complained that “Journalists celebrate this as ‘investigative,’ but in fact it’s oppo research.”

Ultimately, the problem is not with Teach For America or ProPublica.

What was most consistent about those defending TFA was their tone of surprised indignation that a complex subject could be treated in such simplified terms. They see the TFA legacy as complicated, mixed, and legitimately open to critique. They also see TFA as a do-good organization that has tried to operate outside of partisan politics and are outraged that it has been tagged as a willing and eager accessory to the charter movement and a threat to public education.

Are TFA supporters right to be surprised when they get pulled into the sharp, ideologically framed debate around charters and privatization? As someone who has followed the charter school movement from its beginning, my considered answer is “yes ... and no.” TFA supporters may be sincere when they insist that they are not warriors for charters and privatization. But they shouldn’t be surprised when they are characterized that way.

Here’s why they are right to challenge the meme that TFA is a committed handmaiden to privatization. When Wendy Kopp founded TFA in 1990, she pitched it as a way to improve public education and narrow education achievement gaps by recruiting bright, motivated young people who might not otherwise have considered a teaching career and placing them in high-need districts. The organization has delivered on much of that promise. It drew smart and energetic recruits to teaching; in 2010 it attracted more than 46,000 applicants, including 18 percent of Harvard’s graduating class. The TFA website claims almost 60,000 alumni and current core members. To my knowledge no one has seriously questioned those figures.

And to the critics who have pointed to the high proportion of TFA recruits who leave before their two-year commitment is over, TFA counters that many go on to other jobs in the education sector, or to jobs in government or nonprofits that serve children in other ways.

Waldman is right to point out that a disproportionate share of TFA placements are in charters and that this trend has been growing. However, it is also true that over its nearly 30-year history, TFA has placed more of its teachers in traditional districts than in charter schools, and the backlash against TFA in some districts accounts for some of its diminished presence in public schools, not a full-bore strategy to eschew them.

Most of those who rallied to TFA’s defense in the wake of ProPublica’s piece are seasoned observers of the national politics of education—a series of take-no-prisoners battles pitting proponents of markets against defenders of government, celebrants of individual freedom against nurturers of collectively negotiated norms, and champions of opportunity against champions of equity. And their protestations of surprise and indignation deserve skepticism. They are savvy enough to know that the heat of such battles quickly burns away the underbrush of nuance and complexity. TFA did not create the corrosive political environment in which it finds itself, and many of its defenders would prefer to operate in a less contentious setting. But it is complicit.

Some of that complicity is passive. Its growth has been directly attributable to its tactical relevance in the education wars. It has garnered private funding and political support because of its potential to help charter networks increase their size and scope, undercut teachers’ unions, and destabilize the institutions and coalitions defending traditional districts. While many in TFA genuinely value public and democratically responsive education systems, the organization’s successes have been co-opted by partisan and ideological interests who do in fact favor a sharp shift to a market-driven education system in which parents hold sway over collective norms and needs.

Some of the complicity is active. While the defenders decry oversimplification of the TFA story, many have perpetrated their own oversimplification, using a broad brush to paint district leadership and older teachers as knee-jerk defenders of the status quo. The fact that TFA is embracing direct political involvement through its spin-off program Leadership For Educational Equity, which supports alums and others running for public office, demonstrates its understanding that ideas about reform need power behind them.

Ultimately, the problem is not with Teach For America or ProPublica. Rather, it’s polarization of American political discourse that leaves no room for negotiated or pragmatic decisionmaking. Many would like to see a mature and reasoned conversation, but the fierce pitch of the national debate leads everyone to reject that option out of fear that any willingness to acknowledge ambiguity or concede uncertainty will be seen as a weakness to be exploited by opponents. With so much seemingly at stake, pragmatism and nuance seem less like a colony in which to settle than a brief rest stop on the slippery slope toward extremism.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 17, 2019 edition of Education Week as What’s the Matter With Teach For America?

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