Teacher Preparation Opinion

The Anti-TFA Protests Are Misguided

By Howard Fuller — December 09, 2014 5 min read
Teach For America corps member Jessica Haskell teaches math to children at Scott Montgomery Elementary School in Washington in 2007.

Editor’s Note: The author’s bio has been updated to include the following information: “Mr. Fuller also serves on the Teach For America-Milwaukee Regional Board of Directors and is a member of the selection committee for the Peter Jennings Award for Civic Leadership, which is presented to a TFA alumnus/a annually.” It is Education Week‘s policy to disclose any such affiliations when an author writes about an issue or organization with which he or she is involved. In this case, Education Week did not learn of Mr. Fuller’s role with TFA until after this Commentary was published.

Historically, the group United Students Against Sweatshops has organized campus demonstrations around everything from the working conditions behind the making of college apparel to the treatment of food-service workers. Frankly, were I in college today, I might have joined some of their demonstrations. But now, with the financial backing of the American Federation of Teachers, these activists have chosen education as their newest cause and placed Teach For America in their cross hairs. By their logic, TFA, an organization that inspires people to fight educational inequity, sits at the heart of it.

Most onlookers have quickly recognized USAS’ campaign as misguided or misinformed. But the very fact of it calls our attention to a larger issue. For years now, groups like this one have sought to undermine TFA and other efforts aimed at addressing one of the most urgent issues facing our country—the problem of educational inequity. For those of us on the front lines of this work, these anti-TFA agendas have ranged from annoying to irrelevant. But given the state of education for children living in low-income communities, most of whom are African-American and Latino, we simply can’t stand for this misinformation any longer. If we do, we’re as guilty as the USAS members are.

For anyone who follows education news, the arguments put forth by USAS will sound familiar. The USAS activists call TFA corps members white, elite Ivy Leaguers out of touch with the needs of communities. They say TFA recruits steal jobs from veteran educators, and they take issue with the way TFA members are trained. They say the two-year commitment that corps members make isn’t enough. They do all this in shameful, purposeful defiance of the facts about Teach For America and the challenges it exists to combat.

These claims run blatantly counter to the realities of the organization that I’ve been engaged with in various ways since its inception. Now in its 25th year, Teach For America trains a significant number of African-American and Latino teachers. A third of its corps members graduated from college as the first in their families to do so. Members of TFA meet tremendous demand for talent from traditional school districts, charter schools, and innovative district formations, and they stay in low-income schools at higher rates than first-year teachers in general. Along the way, they lead their students to outcomes that have earned the program recognition as being among the most effective trainers of teachers in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Louisiana.

None of this qualifies Teach For America as perfect, and its leaders are the first to say so. But to characterize TFA in the way that United Students Against Sweatshops does is just wrong and undermines the goal that I am sure USAS supports, which is to make sure that every student has a committed, caring teacher with the capacity to ensure that he or she gets a high-quality education.

Our nation's failure to education our young people isn't circumstantial. It's not coincidental. It's criminal."

The fact is that far too many of our schools and school systems are failing to educate our children, and that disproportionately the children being failed are low-income children of color. To change this reality, we must be willing to radically reimagine the way we approach education for these children. We need people who are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that these children get an education that will give them at least the possibility of living the American dream.

Teach For America corps members and alumni are among those striving to do just this. And while the blogosphere buzzes with the latest theory as to how they get it wrong, these individuals stand in classrooms and communities that rank low on our national priorities, where they inspire students, sit down with parents, and endeavor to imagine change at scale. Again, they are not perfect—no one is—but I am inspired by the work I have seen members of this organization do all over the country.

Our nation’s failure to educate our young people isn’t circumstantial. It’s not coincidental. It’s criminal. In light of this, I find myself impatient with groups like USAS advocating to move us backwards—whatever their intentions. Judging from United Students Against Sweatshops’ latest campaign, these student activists want fewer talented people streaming into our lowest-performing schools. They want to stick with a decades-old training model that prioritizes pedagogy over practice, student outcomes notwithstanding. They want to position the systemic injustice of our schools as media hype. Like the 47,000 individuals working on the front lines for educational equity through Teach For America, I want something different.

Today, our country sits at a perilous moment—one in which doubt, self-interest, and fear threaten to slam the brakes on a movement toward possibility taking hold in schools nationwide. At this decision point, I hope we’ll choose optimism and actual hard work for real change over efforts that will only serve to protect the status quo. I hope we’ll remember the intimate relationship between struggle and progress. I hope we’ll be attentive to the reality that entrenched interests don’t tend to give way easily. More than anything, I hope we’ll remember that the future of the American democratic experiment depends on giving our citizens-in-the-making the equal opportunity they’ve been promised.

With this in mind, let’s support organizations like TFA that are striving to do more than just talk about the realization of the American dream for low-income children of color—that are actually trying to make it happen.

A version of this article appeared in the December 10, 2014 edition of Education Week as Why Protesting TFA is Woefully Misguided


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