Calling Out Teach for America's Myths

Teach For America (TFA) turns 25 this year and, for at least the first 23 of those years, the organization was able to mark each year as a success as the organization grew in numbers, financial support, political clout, and wild public support. However, those years are slowly drawing to a close.

While TFA still receives tens of millions of dollars from the federal government and from private philanthropic organizations like the Walton Family Foundation -- an organization that benefits from systemic inequality and poverty yet is somehow interested in undermining the business of Wal-Mart by improving education (another conversation for another day) -- TFA has had a rough couple of years recently.

Notably, recruitment is down at TFA and they have shut down numerous offices and training sites throughout the U.S. (though, they continue to thrive internationally through the spin-off organization Teach For All). Much of TFA's current woes lie in the growing tide of criticism waged against the organization.

Opponents of the program suggest that TFA corps members are replacing traditionally certified teachers, that TFA operationalizes and reinforces deficit ideologies about the students they work with by relying on a White-savior mentality, and that giving corps members only 18 hours of student teaching not only undermines the profession but hurts students.

More recently, others have pointed out that TFA has shifted entirely from focusing on teachers and teaching and more on influencing policy decisions as it seeks to install alumni of the organization as political puppets who work as principals, school board leaders, and other elected political positions.

In fact, TFA's mission statement doesn't even include the word teach or teachers at all. And while all of this criticism is worthwhile -- and in my estimation very true -- dissident voices from corps members and alumni themselves have for far too long been silent.

Unfortunately, the absence of alumni criticism over the past two decades has likely helped reinforced TFA's brand where corps member/alumni "success stories" are central to the organization's recruiting and marketing strategies.

However, corps member and alumni critiques have not been silent because they do not exist -- far from it, TFA has taken an active role in silencing, marginalizing, and scapegoating those who would possibly undermine TFA by telling more honest stories about their experiences with the organization. In addition to the active suppression of insider critique and criticism by TFA, there has not -- until now -- existed a platform for bringing together dissident voices in one place.

As a society, we've collectively bought into the myth of the failed school and we've also largely jumped on the bandwagon of blaming teachers for the failure of schools. Pretending for a moment that the U.S. has a school failure problem (which it doesn't) and that poverty and inequality isn't the real culprit (which they are), the idea that we need to replace the way we train teachers by given them less training -- both classroom and student teaching experience -- would seem to be a nonsensical claim.

Why is it then that within the myth of the 'bad' teacher have we resigned ourselves to celebrate and fund an organization that effectively says, "teachers are bad and underprepared so...the better solution is to give them 18 hours of training in unrealistic classrooms?" This, when said aloud, should sound as ludicrous as anyone who says that in order to get better healthcare we need doctors with less training, or to improve and reduce costs of commercial aviation we should advocate for less pilot training. Certainly no one would allow a surgeon to operate on them, nor would they willingly strap themselves into a seat on a plane when the surgeon or pilot has so little training.

For any real problems that our schools may have what we do not need are less trained and less committed teachers who simply teach to tests to improve scores. Truly, such a reality does not afford students an equal opportunity at education.

Yet, despite this obvious problem, TFA has enjoyed two decades of growth by pandering to this myth of the failed school and the 'bad' teacher all the while garnering support for its shortsighted, naïve, and damaging pedagogical and political framework. And more disconcerting is that voices from within the organization that have serious reservations about the work being done have largely been silenced by TFA as the organization has actively sought to marginalize critique stemming from its own.

While TFA operationalizes and cashes in on promoting the failed school myth all the while in partnership with corps member "success stories," what is needed most are counter-narratives that tell a more honest story about what it means to be a teacher -- and in particular, what it means to have entered teaching by way of TFA.

Teacher voices need to be heard. And when it comes to TFA teachers, what we need less of are TFA whitewashed narratives; rather, we need to hear honest, gritty, and troubling narratives that provide a more nuanced understanding of what it means to Teach For America.

T. Jameson Brewer is a traditionally trained teacher who turned to TFA to find a teaching job during the Great Recession. He is co-editor of Teach For America Counter-Narratives: Alumni Speak Up and Speak Out (Peter Lang, 2015).