as the most celebrated education-reform organization in the U.S. transformed itself into an arm of the progressive movement? Teach for America, or TFA, the national corps of recent graduates who commit two years to teaching in underserved classrooms across the country, was founded to help close the achievement gap between rich and poor students. But now it increasingly functions as a platform for radical identity politics and the anti-Trump “resistance.”
In remaking itself, TFA has subtly downgraded the principles that had won it allies across the spectrum. George W. Bush, Mitch McConnell, John Cornyn, Chris Christie, and Meg Whitman are a few of the Republicans who championed TFA. The group attracted such boldface names, and hundreds of millions of dollars from some of the largest American firms and philanthropies, because it stood for a simple but powerful idea: that teacher quality is the decisive factor in the educational outcomes produced by schools.
Judging by its interventions in recent debates, it isn’t all that clear that senior TFA executives still believe this. These days, TFA’s voice on charters, accountability, and curricular rigor is decidedly muffled. Such education-reform essentials have been eclipsed in TFA’s discourse by immigration, policing, “queer” and transgender-identity issues, and other left-wing causes. TFA’s message seems to be that until numerous other social ills are cured—until immigration is less restricted, policing becomes more gentle, and poverty is eliminated—an excellent education will elude the poor. That was the status-quo defeatism TFA originally set out to challenge.
Wendy Kopp conceived TFA when she was a senior at Princeton in 1989. Unable to get a New York City teaching job without a graduate degree and state certification, Kopp wrote a thesis calling for the creation of a nontraditional recruitment pipeline that would bring America’s most promising young people to its neediest classrooms. TFA members would teach for two years, applying their energy and ambition to drive achievement at the classroom level. She speculated that some would stay in education, while others would go on to careers in law, medicine, business, journalism, etc. But all would remain “lifelong leaders in the effort to end educational inequity.”
The following year, Kopp launched TFA with a corps of 489 new teachers who were dispatched to schools in six regions—a virtuoso feat of social entrepreneurship. Since then some 50,000 teachers have completed the program. This year’s corps counts around 6,400 members, serving 53 regions from coast to coast.
By the time I joined, in 2005, TFA had distilled the experience of its best corps members into a theory of educational transformation called “Teaching as Leadership.” Most people, it said, aren’t natural-born educators. But they could rise to classroom greatness by setting “big goals” for all students, planning engaging lessons, continually assessing their students, maintaining tough discipline, and investing parents and the wider community in their goals.
Mostly, great teachers work hard—really hard. TFA brought the work habits usually associated with large law firms and high-end management consultancies to America’s K–12 failure factories. Its “summer institute” for new recruits was a grueling ordeal of tears, sweat, and 16-hour days. When I was a corps member, we were told that this is what it would take to overcome the forces of the status quo, which were chronically low expectations; broken homes and criminality in the streets; messy, undisciplined classrooms; and bloated bureaucracies that put the needs of adults above those of children.
The TFA worldview diverged sharply from the one that predominated in the education industry. The leading lights of the profession held that the achievement gap was a product of inadequate funding and larger social inequalities. Thus they transferred blame for classroom outcomes from teachers to policymakers and society at large. Teachers’ unions were particularly fond of this theory, since it provided cover for resisting accountability and high expectations.
TFA raged against all this. The assumption that some kids were doomed to underachievement was wrong and, indeed, bigoted. Ditto for the notion that inner-city children couldn’t be expected to behave like young scholars. These children could pull themselves up, provided they had dedicated educators who believed in them. This wasn’t to say that external factors were discounted altogether. But TFA concentrated on the things that educators and school leaders could control. It would emphasize self-help and uplift. And it would accept friends and allies across political divides to fulfill the promise of educational equality.
oday’s Teach for America is a different story. TFA’s leaders have now fully enlisted the organization in the culture war—to the detriment of its mission and the high-minded civic sensibility that used to animate its work.
This has been most visible in TFA’s response to the 2016 election. TFA chief executive Elisa Villanueva Beard, who took over from Kopp four years ago, doesn’t bother to mask either her progressivism or her revulsion at the new administration. When, a couple of weeks after the election, the president-elect announced his choice of Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education, Beard’s response was swift and cold.
A November 23 TFA news release began by decrying Trump’s “indisputably hostile and racially charged campaign” and called on DeVos to uphold “diversity, equity, and inclusiveness.” The statement went on to outline 11 TFA demands. Topping the litany was protection of the previous administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which granted legal status to certain illegal immigrants brought into the country as children. Then came the identity-politics checklist: “SAFE classrooms for LGBTQ youth and teachers,” “safe classrooms for students and teachers with disabilities,” “safe classrooms for Muslim students and teachers,” “culturally responsive teaching,” and so on.
Of the 11 demands, only three directly touched core education-reform areas—high expectations, accountability, and data-driven instruction—and these were couched in the broadest terms possible. Most notably, there wasn’t a single kind word for DeVos: no well wishes, no hope of “working together to achieve common goals,” no call for dialogue, nothing but angry demands. This, even though the secretary-designee was a passionate charter advocate and came from the same corporate philanthropy and activism ecosystem that TFA had long inhabited.
It is true that inner-city educators were horrified at the election of a candidate who winked at David Duke and suggested that a federal judge’s Mexican heritage was disqualifying. TFA’s particular concern about DACA makes sense, since many corps members work with illegal-immigrant children in border states. (My own stint took me to the Rio Grande Valley region of South Texas.)
Even so, TFA’s allergic reaction to the Trump phenomenon reflects faulty strategic thinking. Beard isn’t Rachel Maddow, and TFA isn’t supposed to be an immigration-reform outfit, still less a progressive think tank. With Republicans having swept all three branches of the federal government, as well as a majority of statehouses and governors’ mansions, TFA must come to terms with the GOP. Condemning the new education secretary as barely legitimate wasn’t wise.
Beard is also making a grave mistake by attempting to banish legitimate conservative positions from the reform movement. In the wake of the bloody white-nationalist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, she blasted an email to the organization that denounced in one breath opposition to affirmative action and “racist and xenophobic violence.” Some two-thirds of Americans oppose race-based affirmative action. Will these Americans give TFA a fair hearing on educational reform when the organization equates them with alt-right thugs? In a phone interview, Beard said she didn’t intend to link white nationalism with opposition to affirmative action.
As for DACA, the amount of attention TFA devotes to the fate of those affected is out of all proportion. TFA has a full-time director for DACA issues. A search of its website reveals at least 31 news releases, statements, and personal blogs on DACA—including a 2013 call for solidarity with “UndocuQueer students” that delved into the more exotic dimensions of intersectionality. As one education reformer told me in an interview, “They are super-concerned with ‘can’t wait’ issues—DACA and so on—and so much of their mental space [is filled up] by that kind of thing that less of their attention and time is being spent” on central priorities. “Personally, I think that’s such a shame.” (This reformer, and others I interviewed for this article, declined to speak on the record.)
By contrast, TFA didn’t call out Mayor Bill de Blasio on his attempts to roll back charter schools in New York. The organization has rarely targeted teachers’ unions the way it has ripped into Trump. But it is the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers that pose the main obstacle to expanding school choice and dismissing ineffective teachers. It is the unions that are bent on snuffing out data-driven instruction. It was a teachers’ union boss (Karen Lewis of Chicago), not the 45th president, who in 2012 accused TFA of supporting policies that “kill and disenfranchise children.”
each for America’s turn to the harder left predated Trump’s ascent, and it isn’t mainly about him. Rather, it tracks deeper shifts within American liberalism, from the meritocratic Clintonian ideas of the 1990s and early aughts to today’s socialist revival and the fervid politics of race, gender, and sexuality.
Culturally, TFA was always more liberal than conservative. Educators tend to be liberal Democrats, regardless of the path that brings them to the classroom. But education reformers are unwanted children of American liberalism. They are signed up for the Democratic program, but they clash with public-sector labor unions, the most powerful component of the party base.
As TFA went from startup to corporate-backed giant, it sustained withering attacks from leftist quarters. On her influential education blog, New York University’s Diane Ravitch (a one-time education reformer who changed sides) relentlessly hammered corps members as “woefully unprepared,” as scabs “used to take jobs away from experienced teachers,” as agents of “privatization” and the “neoliberal attack on the public sector.” It was Ravitch who publicized Lewis’s claim that TFAers “kill” kids.
Michelle Rhee, the Korean-American alumna who in 2007 was tapped as chancellor of the District of Columbia system, became a lightning rod for anti-TFA sentiment on the left. Rhee’s no-nonsense approach to failing schools was summed up in a Time magazine cover that showed her holding a broom in the middle of a classroom. When D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty didn’t win reelection in 2010, it was seen as a popular verdict against this image of TFA-style reform.
In 2013, one university instructor, herself a TFA alumna, urged college professors not to write letters of recommendation for students seeking admission to the organization. Liberal pundits took issue with TFA’s alleged elitism and lack of diversity, portraying it as the latest in a long line of “effete” white reformist institutions that invariably let down the minorities they try to help. TFA, argued a writer in the insurgent leftist magazine Jacobin, is “another chimerical attempt in a long history of chimerical attempts to sell educational reform as a solution to class inequality. At worst, it’s a Trojan horse for all that is unseemly about the contemporary education-reform movement.” By “unseemly,” the writer meant conservative and corporate.
The assaults have had an effect. Applications to TFA dropped to 37,000 last year, down from 57,000 in 2013. Thus ended a growth spurt that had seen the organization increase the size of its corps by about a fifth each year since 2000. Partly this was due to more jobs and better salaries on offer to elite graduates in a rebounding private sector. But as Beard conceded in a statement in April 2016, partly it was the “toxic debate surrounding education” that was “pushing future leaders away from considering education as a space where they can have real impact.”
The temptation for any successful nonprofit crusade is to care more about viability and growth than the original cause. Wounded by the union-led attacks, TFA leaders have apparently concluded that identity politics and a progressive public presence can revive recruitment. With its raft of corporate donors and the massive Walton-family endowment, TFA would never fit in comfortably with an American liberalism moving in the direction of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But talk of Black Lives and “UndocuQueers” might help it reconnect with younger millennials nursed on race-and-gender theory.
Thus, TFA leads its current pitch by touting its diversity. Beard opened her keynote at last year’s 25th-anniversary summit in Washington by noting: “We are more diverse than we have ever been. . . . We are a community that is black, that is Latino, that is white, that is American Indian, that is Asian and Pacific Islander, that is multiracial. We are a community that is lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and trans.” The organization’s first priority, Beard went on, will always be “to build an inclusive community.”
It makes sense to recruit diverse teachers to lead classrooms in minority-majority regions, to be sure. But one can’t help detecting a certain liberal guilt behind this rhetoric, as if TFA had taken all the attacks against it to heart: We aren’t elite, we swear! Yet the 90 percent of black children who don’t reach math proficiency by eighth grade need good math teachers, period. Their parents don’t care how teachers worship (if at all), what they look like, or what they get up to in the bedroom. They want teachers who will put their children on a trajectory out of poverty.
Minority parents, moreover, fear for their kids’ well-being in chaotic schools and gang-infested streets. Yet to hear many of the speakers at TFA’s summit, you would have thought that police and other authority figures represent the main threat to black and Hispanic children. At a session titled “#StayWoke,” a TFA teacher railed against the police:
I teach 22 second-graders in Southeast D.C., all of them students of color. Sixteen of them are beautiful, carefree black and brown boys, who, despite their charm and playfulness, could be slain in the streets by the power that be [sic], simply because of the color of their skin, what clothes they wear, or the music they choose to listen to.
Educators must therefore impart “a racial literacy, a literacy of resistance.” Their students “must grow up woke.” Another teacher-panelist condemned anti-gang violence initiatives that
come from the same place as the appetite to charge black and brown people with charges of self-destruction. The tradition of blaming black folk keeps us from aiming at real sources of violence. If we were really interested in ending violence, we would be asking who pulled the trigger to underfund schools in Philadelphia? Who poisoned our brothers and sisters in Flint, Michigan? Who and what made New Orleans the incarceration capital of the world? We would teach our students to raise these questions.
Throughout, he led the assembly in chants of “Stay Woke!”
Talk of teaching “resistance” represented a reversion to the radical pedagogy and racial separatism that left a legacy of broken inner-city schools in the previous century. TFA’s own experience, and that of TFA-linked charter networks such as the Knowledge Is Power Program, had taught reformers that, to thrive academically, low-income students need rigid structure and order. Racial resentment won’t set these kids up for success but for alienation and failure—and prison.
Another session, on “Academic Rigor, Social and Political Consciousness, and Culturally Relevant Pedagogy,” pushed similar ideas. Jeff Duncan-Andrade, an associate professor of “Raza studies” at San Francisco State University, urged teachers to develop an ultra-localized race-conscious curriculum:
Don’t even essentialize Oakland’s culture! If you’re from the town, you know it’s a big-ass difference between the west and the east [sic]. We talk differently, we walk differently, we dress differently, we speak differently. The historical elements are different. So if you use stuff from the west [of Oakland] you have to really figure out, ‘How do I modify this to be relevant to the communities I’m serving in East Oakland?’ Develop curriculum, pedagogy, assessment that is responsive to the community you serve. You gotta become an ethnographer. You gotta get on the streets, get into the neighborhoods and barrios…talk to the ancestors…
If your curriculum is not building pathways to self-love for kids who at every turn of their day are taught to hate themselves, hate the color of their skin, hate the texture of their hair, hate the color of their eyes, hate the language they speak, hate the culture they come from, hate the ‘hood that they come from, hate the countries that their people come from, then what’s the purpose of your schooling?
Other sessions included “Native American Community Academy: A Case Study in Culturally Responsive Pedagogy”; “What Is the Role of White Leaders?”; “Navigating Gender Dynamics”; “Beyond Marriage Equality: Safety and Empowerment in the Education of LGBTQ Youth”; “A Chorus of Voices: Building Power Together,” featuring the incendiary Black Lives Matter activist and TFA alumnus DeRay McKesson; “Every Student Counts: Moving the Equity Agenda Forward for Asian American and Pacific Islander Students”; “Intentionally Diverse Learning Communities”; and much more of the kind.
Lost amid all this talk of identitarian self-love was the educator’s role in leading poor children toward things bigger and higher than Oakland, with its no doubt edifying east–west street rivalries—toward the glories of the West and the civic and constitutional bonds that link Americans of all backgrounds. You can be sure that the people who participate in TFA see to it that their own children learn to appreciate Caravaggio and Shakespeare and The Federalist. The whole point of the organization was to ensure that kids from Oakland could do the same.
Twenty-seven years since Teach for America was founded, the group’s mission remains vital. Today fewer than 1 in 10 children growing up in low-income communities graduate college. The basic political dynamics of education reform haven’t changed: Teach for America, and the other reform efforts it has inspired, have shown what works. The question is whether Teach for America is still determined to reform schools and fight for educational excellence for all—or whether it wants to become a cash-flush and slick vehicle for the new politics of identity.