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Teaching Profession Opinion

Why TFA Should Tell the ‘United Students Against Sweatshops’ to Shut Up and Sit Down

By Rick Hess — November 03, 2014 4 min read
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In a peculiar turn, "#resistTFA” has become a rallying cry for a fringe group of college students intent on attacking Teach For America. In a puzzling turn, their sparsely-attended events (which mostly consist of histrionic attacks on TFA) have gained some notable attention. And, in a perverse turn, TFA—an organization filled with earnest liberals who are actually trying to do something—is being cheap-shotted by a bunch of self-impressed, earnest liberal undergraduates (and the professional organizers who are manipulating them).

Fashioning themselves the “United Students Against Sweatshops” (it’s okay to laugh at that), these kids have taken TFA to task for being “the man"—and for turning teaching into sweatshop-like work by allowing some selected recruits to enter the classroom without slogging through the entirety of traditional teacher prep. I’m not sure where the “sweatshop” piece really surfaces here, ed schools have a hard time making the case that their grads are better after the training, and research has suggested that TFA’ers are at least as effective as traditionally trained teachers, but whatevs... Somehow, I don’t think the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) are all that interested in sweating these details. I’m trying to make allowance for the fact that these complaints are being offered by a bunch of 20-year-olds who don’t know anything and who’ve given every indication that they’re being funded and stage-managed by professional labor organizers who have their own agenda. But still, for reasons that escape me, they’ve been getting a fair bit of attention.

Now, let’s be clear. I’ve always liked Teach For America, but I’ve never been a full-throated TFA enthusiast. I like TFA because it’s done a lot to elevate the appeal of teaching and has brought tens of thousands of smart, impassioned folks into education—including some of those who now denounce TFA. I can tell you from personal experience that, back in 1990 (when I was earning my teaching credential and seeking a teaching job), the smarts and energy that TFA teachers and alums have brought to schooling today weren’t in evidence.

At the same time, I’ve never been as over-the-moon about TFA as many people whom I like and respect. Why not? Partly because I’ve always been uncomfortable with TFA’s deep-rooted liberalism and its commitment to a left-leaning vision of “social justice.” Partly because its very success has made TFA such a colossus in the education world, with advocates and funders tending to have more faith in TFA’s magic than I think is warranted. And partly because the kind of save-the-world fervor that TFA attracts and inspires always tends to leave me a little nervous.

Of course, the reasons that I’ve been mixed on TFA for more than two decades should convey why I’m so bug-eyed at the attacks on TFA being mounted by these Che Guevara wannabes. For all the lazy talk I hear about conservative “extremism,” I’ve always been bemused by the left’s inclination to cannibalize itself—with young lefties attacking those who’ve actually done something for being insufficiently wedded to the neo-Marxist conceit of the moment.

USAS attacks TFA as “corporate robber barons of education reform.” I know this kind of lazy vitriol has come into vogue, and that these undergrads can get an A for saying this sort of thing in their “Deconstructing Oppressive Male Hierarchies” fem-lit seminar, but it’s worth noting that TFA is a nonprofit organization, that it coexists with more than a thousand traditional teacher preparation programs, and that most TFA staff could be making more money if they opted to pursue careers in places like finance or law. “Robber baron” is usually a term applied to monopolists or oligopolists who are making obscene profits by controlling the market. Ah, well...

TFA has allowed these college kids to drag it into a depressing game of one-upsmanship identity politics. Attacked for maintaining hierarchical power structures of racial privilege and all other manner of PC concerns, TFA—like any organization peopled by impassioned liberals—hasn’t told the kids to go soak their heads, but has defensively pointed out that it is “one of the nation’s largest producers of African American and Latino teachers.” Of course, that appeal has failed to placate the oppressed USAS kids who’ve been toiling in the hard-luck vineyards of UPenn, Harvard, and Macalester. Indeed, USAS explains that “such individual-level changes and pilot programs” don’t address the “adverse structural effects” that TFA “is having on public education in working class communities and communities of color across the country.”

I’m all for being appropriately skeptical of TFA (and everyone else)—especially when an outfit has been suffused in as much loving adoration as TFA. Hell, I’ve taken plenty of grief from friends and funders over the years for not being as fired-up about TFA as they’d like me to be. But it’s a big world. Agree with them or not on any given particular, the staff at TFA and the teachers they recruit are out there working hard and trying to do some good. They deserve a helluva lot better than attacks on their motives and decency from a bunch of college kids who’ve never done a damn thing but complain about injustice in a university seminar.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.