What we should be talking about when we talk about Teach for America

Unless you’ve been under a rock, you’ve no doubt noticed that the debate about Teach for America has ratcheted up considerably in recent weeks. Here’s the quick and dirty version: urban districts are closing dozens of schools and laying off teachers, even as they’re bringing in new Teach for America recruits. When news began to spread that a popular Chicago teacher had been laid off (the news delivered by his mother, no less), the back-and-forth reached a boiling point. How was it right for the Chicago Public Schools to axe a well-regarded teacher, one of 2,000 let go, while expanding the number of TFA corps members, who’ll be entering the city’s schools this fall after just five weeks of training?

It’s a heated and emotional discussion but it also misses the larger point. TFA’s threat to urban teachers isn’t in these new corps members but in the policy of rampant urban charter expansion that TFA is driving. What’s more, the rancorous tone of the debate threatens to push away the growing number of alumni who have begun to question TFA’s mission and orientation. So what should we be talking about? 

By fueling charter expansion, TFA is undermining public schools

You wouldn’t know it from the heat of the debate but Teach for America has largely abandoned plans to expand into urban districts in any significant way. Instead, TFA increasingly serves as the designated labor force for urban charters. In Chicago, for example, where charter expansion is the real driver of public school closures and teacher layoffs, TFA has functioned as a placement agency for the fast-growing and politically connected UNO charter chain since 2010. In Philadelphia, where 23 schools were closed this spring and thousands of teachers and support staff laid off, TFA supplies hundreds of new teachers for charters in the city. Of the 257 corps members teaching in Philly in 2012, just 21 were in district schools.

From Detroit to Cleveland to Newark, NJ, where TFA recruits will live in a specially constructed Teachers Village adjacent to their charter schools, the story is the same: TFA provides the labor force to charter schools which are expanding at the expense of traditional public schools and teachers. TFA is also the primary labor supplier to the fastest growing charter chains in the country. Last year TFA partnered with Imagine Schools, the largest network of for-profit charter schools, with 75 schools in more than a dozen states. And don’t forget Rocketship, the charter chain darling of Silicon Valley, which relies upon TFA to supply more than half of the teachers in its California schools. Rocketship is in the process of opening charters in Milwaukee, Washington DC, New Orleans and Nashville, and expects to serve 25,000 students by 2017.

TFA views traditional public schools with disdain

TFA’s shift away from its original mission of serving public schools to becoming a provider of labor for charters also means that its much vaunted leadership pipeline is producing a different kind of leader. TFA increasingly grooms leaders with no experience of traditional public schools. Recent corps members teach in charters, go on to lead charters, or move on to careers in educational policy in which they advocate for more charters. Their first encounter with a public education system will likely be when they are hired to dismantle one.

TFA’s leaders are personally tied to charter expansion

Teach for America’s top leaders are deeply, personally invested in charter expansion. Wendy Kopp, TFA founder and chair of its board, is married to Richard Barth, who runs the KIPP network of 125 charter schools. A quick look at TFA’s management reveals a crisscross of connections with fast-growing charters. But it’s the role of new co-CEO Matt Kramer in facilitating charter expansion that may be the most revealing. Minneapolis, where Kramer lives, has been the site of an intense debate over TFA’s role in the public schools. But as in other urban areas, the focus on a relatively small number of corps members overshadows TFA’s more significant role in advocating for the break up of the Minneapolis Public Schools. Minneapolis is currently home to more than 40 charter schools. Charter School Partners, to which Kramer has close family ties, plans to open an additional 20 charters there in the next five years, making mass school closures and layoffs inevitable. (Note: I’ve written extensively about Kramer’s unusually personal involvement in reshaping the Minneapolis education landscape herehere and here.)

TFA puts an excellent face on a politically-driven mission

In a sign that TFA is increasingly sensitive to public criticism, Josh Anderson, the executive director of the organization’s Chicago region recently attempted to ‘set the record straight’ about TFA’s role there. The snow job begins in the very first paragraph when TFA attributes the layoffs of teachers in the Chicago Public Schools to “a budget crisis linked to pension reform,” a talking point helpfully provided by Rahm Emanuel. There is no mention of charter expansion in Chicago (the new CPS budget directs $33 million more to charters than in the previous year), or of TFA’s role in fueling that growth. Nor is there any word of the closure of 50 public schools this spring. Meanwhile, construction on the new UNO Soccer Academy High School on Chicago’s Southwest side, halted due to a corruption investigation, has resumed. The school will open its doors to the first class of students this fall. No doubt there will be plenty of Teach for America recruits on hand to welcome them.



Read more from Public School Shakedown and Jennifer C. Berkshire.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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