Update on October 29, 2015 at 2pm EST: Teach for America reached out to Code Switch with comments on this post. We've updated this post with portions of their response that directly address criticisms raised below, and more broadly illuminate TFA's path forward.
Teach for America gets young people to teach at some of the nation's poorest, brownest schools, and the organization has enjoyed largely uncritical public adoration for most of its 25 years. But over the past few years, former teachers have been raising serious questions about TFA's mission and treatment of the schools and students it works with.
In an interesting Q&A over at Jacobin, author-researchers Sarah Matsui and T. Jameson Brewer, both Teach for America alums, worry that the program relies on a shaky "hero narrative" to lure idealists into jobs for which they're wildly unprepared, and convinces them that a "can-do attitude" is all it takes to hurdle systemic gaps in our schools.
Individual teachers and students can make incredible academic gains despite educational inequity, but educational inequity is not a problem of individuals' efforts or expectations.
Scaling up even the best of intentions or holding the highest of expectations for individual students will not desegregate our schools or change the differential funding of our separate school districts. For example, in Philadelphia, per pupil expenditures were $9,299 per pupil for the city's 79 percent black and Latino population, while just over the city's boundaries into Lower Merion, part of the inner ring of Philadelphia suburbs, the per pupil expenditure was $17,261 for a 91 percent white population.
TFA has made some changes in response to its critics, namely recruiting a broader swath of potential corps members. In an interview, Chief Diversity Officer Irma McClaurin, who joined the organization in October of 2014, says it is important to note that TFA is not aiming to be the sole solution to problems in public education. "They're not saying they're the silver bullet," she says. McClaurin also points out that other stakeholders in education struggle with diversity and inclusion. "African-American studies departments are closing down. In terms of black faculty or faculty of color, they're not replacing faculty that are retiring or have passed away. One of the reasons I joined [Teach for America] is because I did see that there was an organizational will to make progress in making sure that the organization is in fact diverse and inclusive, not only in terms of staff, but also in terms of corps members."
Brewer says his research indicates that while TFA's 2015 hires are more racially and economically diverse than ever before, the organization has doubled down on a narrative that "privileges whiteness and reinforces the myth of meritocracy."
Matsui believes that folks who laud TFA as saviors of primary education also tend to believe that Barack Obama's election ushered in a post-racial meritocracy in America, thinking that she says trickles down to individual corps members. Because TFA leans heavily on the rhetoric of bootstrapping, new teachers tend to feel individually culpable when things go wrong in the classroom.
In some instances, Brewer believes, TFA gives corps members "the space to act on hidden racism." One TFA teacher describes a common TFA pastime:
I do get uncomfortable when a group of corps members come together and start the "they can't. . . " or "they don't. . ." game. Never heard of it? Here is what it sounds like: "They can't sit silently." "Yeah! They don't want to learn!" "Tell'em! They can't even read a sentence!" . . . These corps members are making gross generalizations . . . Racial stereotypes like, "They're not even worthy." You hear a lot of corps members saying these things, "They can't read, they can't do this, they don't want to learn."
I accepted as true — and TFA was quick to confirm — the myth that all that poor students (of color) need is what affluent (white) students have: access to great schools with the best teachers that hold students to high expectations . . . I have come to acknowledge and recognize color-blind racism and to see how it undergirds educational inequity. TFA, in my view, perpetuates, commits, and cultivates this kind of covert racism . . . It recruited, used, and grew my racism, leading me to uphold the dominant culture's notion of who is "educated" and to force the assimilation of my students into such beliefs — no excuses.
In an interview, Teach for America spokesperson Takirra Winfield said, "TFA is definitely not perfect. We've come a long ways over the past 25 years, and we are committed to constantly looking at our organization and saying, 'Here are the areas where we need to improve, here are the areas where we're excelling, and here are things that we should just abandon because they're not working.' . . . The field as a whole has a long way to go to sort of addressing this issue. We know that we absolutely have to do things like partner with historically black colleges and universities, and colleges with high populations of Latino students, trying to get the word out about the teaching profession."
Matsui argues that TFA controls "which of these stories are being centered and which are ignored." "Taking on TFA" is definitely worth a read. The full piece shares more on the history of Teach for America, and how the program fits into the country's larger education system.