Teach for America isn't welcome in my class

Author and Fordham University history professor Mark Naison exposes the cynical and elitist underpinnings of the celebrated "Teach for Awhile" program.

A Teach for America recruiter at a career fair at Penn StateA Teach for America recruiter at a career fair at Penn State

EVERY SPRING, without fail, a Teach for America (TFA) recruiter approaches me and asks if they can come to my classes and recruit students for TFA, and every year, without fail, I give them the same answer: "Sorry."

Until Teach for America becomes committed to training lifetime educators and raises the length of service to five years rather than two, I will not allow TFA to recruit in my classes. The idea of sending talented students into schools in impoverished areas, and then after two years encouraging them to pursue careers in finance, law and business in the hope that they will then advocate for educational equity really rubs me the wrong way.

It was not always thus. Ten years ago, when a Teach for America recruiter first approached me, I was enthusiastic about the idea of recruiting my most idealistic and talented students for work in poor schools. I allowed TFA representative to make presentations in my classes, filled with urban studies and African American studies majors.

Several of my best students applied, all of whom wanted to become teachers, and most of whom came from the kind of high-poverty neighborhoods where TFA proposed to send its recruits.

Not one of them was accepted!

Enraged, I did a little research and found that Teach for America had accepted only four of the nearly 100 Fordham students who applied. I become even angrier when I read in the New York Times that TFA had accepted 44 of 100 applicants from Yale that year. Something was really wrong if an organization which wanted to serve low-income communities rejected every applicant from Fordham, students who came from those very communities, and accepted half of the applicants from an Ivy League school where very few of the students, even students of color, come from working-class or poor families.

Since then, the percentage of Fordham students accepted into Teach for America has marginally increased, but the organization has done little to win my confidence that it is seriously committed to recruiting people willing to make a lifetime commitment to teaching and administering schools in high-poverty areas.

Never, in its recruiting literature, has Teach for America described teaching as the most valuable professional choice that an idealistic, socially conscious person can make. Nor do they encourage the brightest students to make teaching their permanent career. Indeed, the organization goes out of its way to make joining TFA seem a like a great pathway to success in other, higher-paying professions.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

FIVE YEARS ago, a TFA recruiter plastered the Fordham campus with flyers that said, "Learn how joining TFA can help you gain admission to Stanford Business School." The message of that flyer was "use teaching in high-poverty areas a stepping-stone to a career in business." It was not only profoundly disrespectful to every person who chooses to commit their life to the teaching profession, it advocated using students in high-poverty areas as guinea pigs for an experiment in "resume-padding" for ambitious young people.

In saying these things, let me make it clear that my quarrel is not with the many talented young people who join Teach for America, some of whom decide to remain in the communities they work in and become lifetime educators. It is with the leaders of the organization, who enjoy the favor with which TFA is regarded with by captains of industry, members of Congress, the media, and the foundation world. They have used this access to move rapidly to positions as heads of local school systems, executives in charter school companies and educational analysts in management consulting firms.

The organization's facile circumvention of the grinding, difficult, but profoundly empowering work of teaching and administering schools has created the illusion that there are quick fixes, not only for failing schools but for deeply entrenched patterns of poverty and inequality. No organization has been more complicit than TFA in the demonization of teachers and teachers' unions, and no organization has provided more "shock troops" for education reform strategies, which emphasize privatization and high-stakes testing. Michelle Rhee, a TFA recruit, is the poster child for such policies, but she is hardly alone.

Her counterparts can be found in New Orleans (where they led the movement toward a system dominated by charter schools), in New York City (where they play an important role in the Bloomberg education bureaucracy) and in states like Nevada and South Carolina, where they have persuaded education officials to replace lifetime teachers in low-performing schools with TFA Corps members, most of whom will leave their teaching jobs after a short sojourn.

And the elusive goal of educational equity--how well has it fared in the years Teach for America has been operating?

Not only has there been little progress in the last 15 years in narrowing the test score gap by race and class, but income inequality and child poverty have both grown more markedly in the last 15 years than at any other time in modern American history. TFA has done nothing, in its public pronouncements or its well-funded lobbying efforts, to promote income redistribution, reduce the size of the prison population, encourage social investment in high-poverty neighborhoods, or revitalize the arts, science and history in the nation's schools.

TFA's main accomplishment has been to marginally increase the number of talented people entering the teaching profession, but only a small fraction of those remain in the schools where they were originally sent.

But the most objectionable aspect of Teach for America--other than its contempt for lifetime educators--is its willingness to create another pathway to wealth and power for those already privileged in the rapidly expanding educational-industrial complex, which already offers numerous careers for the ambitious and well-connected. An organization which began by promoting idealism and educational equity has become, to all too many of its recruits, a vehicle for resume-padding and profiting from the misery of America's poor.

If you think I am exaggerating, ask yourself: Can you think of a single high-income or high-performing school district in the nation which would allow teachers who are trained for five weeks to be given full-time teaching positions in their classrooms, and then let them leave after two years?

It is no accident that TFA is cynically described by more than a few education professionals as "Teach for Awhile" and "Temps for African-Americans!"

An earlier version of this article was first published at the History News Network.