Teach For America’s Unspoken Alliance with the One Percent

Yves here. Teach for America is a classic example of a ploy used by wealthy right-wing interests: find reputable, well-liked left-leaning organizations that are having financial troubles, rescue them, and turn their agenda to one more to their new patrons’ liking.

By Dan Fejes, who lives in northeast Ohio. Cross posted from Pruning Shears

Not being an educator, my knowledge of Teach For America (TFA) has been scant. Basically: it was a component of the Americorps program created during the Clinton administration, and plugged willing but un- or under-qualified young people into vacant positions in low income schools for two years. Identify schools that need teachers and have energetic, idealistic recent college grads work to make a difference. Sounds great.

It turns out TFA has taken on an new role in the last few years, though. Last week the #ResistTFA hash tag on Twitter started trending, courtesy of Students United for Public Education. SUPE supporters criticized TFA’s modest five weeks of training for recruits and questioned the adequacy of their preparation.

TFA defenders quickly responded. One asked “why do principals and schools still line up to hire TFA corps members when they have the chance?” Instead of considering that a lower paid and non-unionized workforce might be attractive for strictly administrative reasons, the author claims TFA recruits interview better because (among other reasons) “They don’t cry during interviews” and “If I check them out on Twitter, they’re not tweeting about loving beer or about how they want to be rescued by Prince Charming” (these lines were not, praise Jesus, written by a man).

Others endorsed TFA as a “pipeline for education reform”1 and cited a Department of Education (DOE) study (PDF) that argued for its effectiveness. There might be an element of self-fulfilling prophesy about this, though. In a long, thorough examination of the billionaires behind the attacks on public education, Joanne Barkan writes how DOE head Arne Duncan has his thumb firmly on the scales in favor of business interests:

Nothing illustrates the operation of Duncan’s “open for business” policy better than the administration’s signature education initiative, Race to the Top (RTTT). The “stimulus package” included $4.3 billion for education, but for the first time, states didn’t simply receive grants; they had to compete for RTTT money with a comprehensive, statewide proposal for education reform. It is no exaggeration to say that the criteria for selecting the winners came straight from the foundations’ playbook (which is, after all, Duncan’s playbook). To start, any state that didn’t allow student test scores to determine (at least in part) teacher and principal evaluations was not eligible to compete. After clarifying this, the 103-page application form laid out a list of detailed criteria and then additional priorities for each criterion (“The Secretary is particularly interested in applications that…”). Key criteria included

  • (C)(1) Fully implementing a statewide longitudinal data system
  • (D)(2) Improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance [this is followed by criteria for evaluating performance based on student test scores]
  • (E) Turning around the lowest-achieving schools
  • (F)(2) Ensuring successful conditions for high-performing charter schools and other innovative schools

States were desperate for funds (in the end, thirty-four applied in the two rounds of the contest). When necessary, some rewrote their laws to qualify: they loosened or repealed limits on the number of charter schools allowed; they permitted teacher and principal evaluations based on test scores. But they still faced the immense tasks of designing a proposal that touched on all aspects of K-12 education and then writing an application, which the DOE requested (but did not require) be limited to 350 pages. What state has resources to gamble on such a venture? Enter the Gates Foundation. It reviewed the prospects for reform in every state, picked fifteen favorites, and, in July 2009, offered each up to $250,000 to hire consultants to write the application. Gates even prepared a list of recommended consulting firms. Understandably, the other states cried foul; so did the National Conference of State Legislatures: Gates was giving some states an unfair advantage; it was, in effect, picking winners and losers for a government program. After some weeks of reflection, Gates offered the application money to any state that met the foundation’s eight criteria. Here, for example, is number five: “Does the state grant teacher tenure in fewer than three years? (Answer must be “no” or the state should be able to demonstrate a plan to set a higher bar for tenure).”

Standardized testing has become extremely controversial because, as Barkan writes: “Drilling students on sample questions for weeks before a state test will not improve their education.” If you believe rote memorization equals education, though, then imposing high stakes testing makes great good sense. Having done just that, the DOE then (p. 18) “obtained scores on state assessments from district administrative records” and used the results to vindicate TFA’s effectiveness. One might be excused for being a bit skeptical about the objectivity of such an assessment, however.

What is more and more beyond dispute is that even if TFA is not actively colluding with the privatization industry, it exists in what Charles Pierce called a marvelous environment for political coincidence. Starting with a bit of disaster capitalism in New Orleans, TFA has established a pattern of being the, ahem, pipeline of choice in the wake of mass layoffs. (In its more benign form TFA merely deprives local residents of employment opportunities.) The same thing happened in Chicago and is now poised to happen in Newark.

(TFA’s Fatimah Burnam Watkins responded to the Newark report by writing, among other things: “Positioning this grant announcement which is more than six months old as related in any way to the current school board proceedings is purposefully misleading.” Why on earth would a TFA-friendly school board announce layoffs before the new recruits were in pocket, or be so clumsy as to do so right on the heels of the grant? Anyway, fuller dissection here.)

The announced layoffs sent a shock through the community. Evidently some parents who were concerned that their children’s educational quality was about to get kneecapped did not always follow Robert’s Rules of Order in voicing their opposition.2 Superintendent Cami Anderson, apparently a graduate of the Mitt Romney school of public discourse, simply could not abide by such (insert breathless Southern belle voice) insupportable vexation:

Opponents of the layoff plan wanted to address Anderson directly at last night’s meeting. But the school district sent a letter to parents saying Anderson and the school district’s leadership team would no longer attend board meetings, saying the meetings had become too dysfunctional to be an effective communication tool to the public.

So residents can just consult the district web site or public access TV channel for the latest developments; no need to show up at any more meetings.

As we get an increasingly clear picture of the privatization/charter terrain, an unmistakable impression emerges (PDF, via): “While charter schools were originally developed by progressive educators in the 1990s, corporate elites and politicians from both major US parties have taken them up as an opportunity to merge public education with market-based assumptions.”

The model works like this: Mandate standardized testing, use TFA recruits to teach to the test, use the test results to “prove” the effectiveness of TFA, use the TFA pipeline to close schools and fire teachers, and replace both with charters staffed by lower paid, non-union TFA employees. (And please note that charters go tits up with all the orderliness and accountability of Freedom Industries.)

TFA could resist this trend if it wanted. It could refuse to send recruits to districts that have had (or are considering) substantial layoffs. It could offer to send recruits to public schools as assistants instead of replacements, which would be a huge benefit to schools. TFA chooses not to, though, and that speaks volumes. By all accounts it is content with the status quo (content enough not to buck it, anyway). In the absence of a clear and forceful refusal to cooperate, the only reasonable conclusion is that TFA is happy to collaborate with those who view schools as “ecosystems of investment opportunity.”


1. Perhaps not the best metaphor for this era.

2. This is a good time to review the following meditation on civility and decency.

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  1. allcoppedout

    They got at our education systems long before any of these schemes. UK/US standards are internationally dismal for deeper reasons than well-intentioned projects moving to the right. The key element in keeping educational quality low is managerialism, especially paying the heads/vcs a great deal more and allowing performance management techniques that have nothing to do with genuine educational evaluation.

    The root cause is neo-liberalism and we haven’t learned yet that ‘manners’ are a massive part of how this con works. These ‘manners’ tend to be shared by left and right and are not just etiquette and politesse, but include many mundane understandings of what educational success is (nearly always excluding those not good at academic stuff), discipline and crazy notions that academic content is linked to getting the right jobs for other than the already privileged.

    Here, one finds you can’t get funding for projects based on what research would direct, but have to write applications based on the clown preferences of politicians to stand any chance. We more or less have TFA in the UK. What we don’t have are schemes to get people with other work experience into teaching quickly, except for armed service leavers. Why would we encourage more young people into teaching other than to render the teaching workforce more docile?

    1. susan the other

      So how can we teach for america if we do not teach what america’s vision is? If we do not teach what modern-day america has become and what it wishes to improve? This is the pitfall of fascism – it stakes its ground and never moves. Except to propagandize.

    2. randy

      This ^^. Credentials in education are part of the mix. I’d rather a teacher have deep experience and success in the subject matter. What we have now is over paid dummies with masters/PhD credentials in BS education theories. The system is so sick. Abandon hope.

  2. Michael Fiorillo

    Thanks for publishing this expose of this extremely insidious, cult-like, scab employment agency. As a NYC public school teacher, I have watched this group be the young “idealistic” smiley face – just behind which is insufferable arrogance and self-satisfaction – of the hostile takeover of public education.

    Wendy Kopp, founder of TFA, has explicitly stated that the purpose of the organization is not to develop career teachers – on the contrary, they’re about turning teaching into temporary, at-will labor – but rather to develop “leaders” (meaning privatization cadre) in public education.

    TFA alumni are busy serial public school killers in LA, Newark, Tennessee, Washington DC, New Orleans and elsewhere. It is also the primary employment pipeline for charter schools, which are cannibalizing public school budgets and facilities across the country.

    An extremely deceptive and pernicious organization which should have a stake driven through its heart…

    1. Ulysses

      Yes!! TFA kids are routinely used as scab labor to break teachers’ unions. I’ve been encouraged to hear from the good folks at the Coalition to Defend Public Education, in Rhode Island, that a number of TFA alumni have recognized the pernicious nature of the program, and are now actively campaigning against it at colleges throughout New England.
      Right now Pittsburgh privatizers are trying to fire loads of experienced professionals in their system, and replace them with untrained TFA temps.
      This is one matter in which Bill de Blasio is clearly far more enlightened than Mike Bloomberg!!

      1. Michael Fiorillo

        I think De Blasio’s heart is in the right place on this issue; he is a public school parent, and has seen the destruction and insanity first hand. However, he is going to need a lot of street support, because he is facing a tremendous amount of behind-the-scenes push back from the city’s Overclass. He has already shown some signs of giving in to them, via his recent decision to rescind only a small percentage of the charter school invasions approved by Bloomberg in the waning days of his administration.

        The place to kill off TFA is on the college campuses, by exposing it and making it radioactive, the equivalent or worse of a sweatshop-produced college hoodie.

        Unfortunately, TFA, as any ruling class institution worth its salt, recruits primarily at elite colleges, which have an under-recognized history as procurers of scabs and strikebreakers (www.nyceducator.com/2010/09/ivy-league-union-busters-then-and-now.html).

    2. JTFaraday

      “An extremely deceptive and pernicious organization which should have a stake driven through its heart…”

      It grows like mold. Some other disproportionately young and low paid organized workforce will rise to take its place– probably a better captured one without an ivy league degree next time.

      Even the UAW sanctions this sort of ritual undermining of organized workforces:

      “Within four years, up to one third of unionized General Motors workers will be working at half the current pay scale, with sharply reduced medical benefits and without a company-paid pension plan if the tentative contract agreed to by the United Auto Workers union (UAW) is ratified…

      The joint strategy of GM and the UAW is to push out as rapidly as possible the older workers and replace them with younger employees who will receive second-tier wages and benefits.”


      Deception is the order of the day.

  3. Skeptic

    “Teach for America is a classic example of a ploy used by wealthy right-wing interests: find reputable, well-liked left-leaning organizations that are having financial troubles, rescue them, and turn their agenda to one more to their new patrons’ liking.”

    Thanks for calling attention to this technique used by the right wing.

    In my region, we have a “do-gooder” non-profit controlled by a Trust Baby and her husband. Most of the funding Loot comes from a large corporate controlled Foundation. Trust Baby’s Daddy is a top executive at the corporation. The non-profit engages in some harmless activity so that Loot can flow from the Foundation to Trust Baby, her husband and associate sycophants and hangers-on. There is lots of profit in non-profits!

    Another social oxymoron is Non Government Organization or NGO where many get their majority of funding from, of course, Governments!

    I carefully examine the background, financial statements and management of any institution before I support it.

  4. Michael Fiorillo

    Yes, current and former members are starting to wake up how insidious this organization is.

    The place to attack TFA is on the college campuses, where it should be exposed and made radioactive.

    Unfortunately, TFA focuses on recruiting at elite schools, which have a long, unacknowledged history of being recruiting grounds for scabs and strikebreakers (nyceducator.com/2010/09/ivy-league-union-busters-then-and-now.html), so they’ll always have a base of support.

  5. tom

    The Left thought it had a monopoly on propagandizing school children. So what comes along but a conservative form of the TFA and the uber-liberal teaching establishment is outraged? That’s hypocrisy.

  6. andrew hartman

    i was a public school teacher and union member for the last years of my working career.
    the criticism here of TFA is ok, but can we at least admit that teachers unions have a long
    record of protecting mediocrity?

    1. washunate

      Yes, the only people who should have jobs are those who are way above average. The rest of humanity are worthless.

      1. elboku

        Well, the majority of our teachers, unfortunately, come from the bottom third of college graduates. They are indeed not very bright. And I have been involved with the education field for over thirty years as a teacher and a lawyer. This is not a secret and the reason is fairly clear: we pay teachers mediocre wages. We pay them terribly and then act surprised when our best and brightest do not go into teaching? Really?

        Why is it that teaching seems top be one field where we expect to pay less and get more? The rwnj mantra is you get what you pay for- but in teaching that is not true according to them because teachers do it out of love. Well, love doesn’t pay the bills. You want the best teachers? Start the pay out at 100k a year and watch the best and the brightest go into teaching.

        As a strong union supporter and former union organizer, i don’t like the union-busting aspects of TFA but as an educator I welcome more of our best and brightest into the teaching world. I only wish we could get them to stay.

      2. randy

        You must not place much value in the education of future generations. Mediocrity must have a place I agree but is this the place??

        1. washunate

          An ordinary, average, middle of the road teacher is providing a quality service.

          I think you are missing the point – the people attacking teachers and unions are doing it precisely to distract attention from the actual problems in public education, which are unfunded federal mandates, decaying urban tax bases, the drug war, wage stagnation, and so forth.

          Charter schools don’t solve these problems – they exacerbate the class divide.

        2. jo

          TFA is about putting unqualified temps, under the auspices of civic volunteering, in the classroom in the aftermath of mass layoffs of career teachers. Where’s the quality???

          TFA is the storm trooper of the school privatization industry, nothing less.

  7. sleepy

    I have taught in a very tough inner city public school system, alongside TFA teachers.

    The unstated (though sometimes stated openly) subtext and attitude by those TFA teachers is that public school teachers are, well, dumb and the main thing those students need is smart, motivated, TFA types who, of course, are not in it for the money like those lazy public teachers.

    Most TFAs learned quickly otherwise that it was not the lack of subject-matter knowledge on the part of the regular teachers, but individual classroom management skills–of which TFAs had little–, terrible building and district supervisory practices, and a lack of materials (30 textbooks for 180 students).

    Beyond that, students picked up on their patronizing phoniness. I only know of 1 TFA who came back for a second year of it.

    1. susan the other

      It is like the writer’s credo: trust your readers. Teachers must trust their students and their students are very, very perceptive. They know bullshit all the way down the hall.

  8. Thorstein

    I am a retired teacher and union member, and one deeply sympathetic to the teachers’ unions’ current struggle against this ongoing attack on the commons of knowledge. I nevertheless feel compelled to note the degree to which the teachers’ unions brought this on themselves. One can perhaps forgive the auto workers and steel workers for becoming Reagan Democrats in the 1980s. The teachers knew better and should have taught the history of the Great Depression, so we would not now be reliving it as a cruel farce: “First they came for the air traffic controllers, but I was not an air traffic controller, so I said nothing. . .”

    The “managerialism” cited @ allcoppedout has been a well-established and well-understood pernicious influence in American education for centuries. Read, for example, Veblen on The Higher Learning in America, or go further back and consider how Henry Dunster in 1640, amidst a capitalist crisis of the day, crowned himself “President” of Harvard College, “rescuing” the modern American university from the Oxbridge model of faculty control, and putting it in the loving hands of a cabal of Boston businessmen.

    It is encouraging that dedicated career teachers are now finally manning the ramparts of academia. They deserve our support, but they also have an obligation to teach history and to teach it fearlessly.

    1. McMike

      The teachers I know are too busy to be political. They are dedicated to trying to engage, educate, and enlighten children under their care, despite the shortcomings of the parents, the chaotic pressures and whims of the administration, the inadequate funding and resources, and the endless barrage of new paperwork requirements and stress, plus the insulting ideological attacks on their motives and efforts, not to mention dealing with the same burdens placed on the middle class in their own home lives that everyone struggles with.

      It’s a wonder they don’t throw up their hands and say to hell with all of this. But they won’t, because they have the unfortunate handicap of setting the politics aside and putting the kids first – day in day out, while administrations dither, politicians meddle and pontificate, and business leaders look for ways to take over that big pot of cash, they are taking care of our kids with everything they’ve got.

      We thank them by demonizing them, and treating them like WalMart greeters, or assembly line workers in a third world chicken processing plant.

  9. washunate

    Great article Yves. That “…well-liked left-leaning organizations…” describes TFA is a fantastic insight into what is wrong with the left, what has been wrong for many years.

    1. washunate

      P.S., for those who like a bit more info, Wendy Kopp developed TFA about a quarter century ago now. Her husband, Richard Barth, is CEO of KIPP Foundation, the largest system of charter schools in the country.

      This is ground zero of the movement to destroy the American concept of public education (neighborhood schools, professional teaching staff, etc.).

      They are very nearly done.

  10. McMike

    Might be a good time to reiterate: privatization goes hand in hand with crapifaction. That’s the business model.

    The last big piles of loot in the heavily-looted USofA are: education, social security, and our public infrastructure. And all three are under heavy assault using the privatization playbook:

    – Create the perception of crisis through propaganda and ideological attack.
    – Create actual crisis by hamstringing through de-funding, creating onerous burdens and hurdles, cherry picking the cream off the top, and meddling with political appointee Trojan horses.
    – “rescue” it by destroying it, and then privatize with a sweetheart deal, captive markets, protection from competition, and guaranteed profit.

  11. Christina Marlowe

    We may just know by now that all of everything is a scam and that all of everything is a lie. Examples? Endless. How about the utterly countless 501(c)(3)s that are constantly and endlessly popping up are ALL Fraudulent and fraught with more of the same agenda: Even More Privatization and Deregulation. And RobinHood.org? HA!! What a sick joke.

    So, HERE:
    What a majority of the electorate, including supporters of corporations/capitalism fails to understand is where we really are: owned and operated by multinational corporations that hold absolutely no allegiance to any nation, Constitution or system of moral authority. Corporations who pick our leaders, buy our representatives, count our votes without oversight or confirmation, taint our food and foul our water and air, sicken our workers and benefit from their deaths. The corporations’ allegiance is to only money; nothing else. They pay little or no taxes, yet they impose policy and write laws to limit our power and unleash theirs.

    Hat Tip to Griffon Avatar.

  12. K Quinn

    The arrogance of TFA continues to astound and disgust me. Just recently I read a Twitter exchange with a TFA lackey who might as well have said he only wants rich white upper class teachers to teach his kids. He relayed how he only wanted teachers who had gone to competitive colleges, had high GPAs, and had leadership experience. The shallowness of the qualities he desired in a teacher were pathetic and only served to put his white privilege on display. To imply that only those who can afford to go to a “competitive college” are smart or can teach discounts all those who for whatever reason (job, family, financial, health) were unable to afford to go to an Ivy League school, plus slams all those colleges of ed at other schools. (And given what I’ve seen come out of Harvard’s ed department these days, I’d not be so certain THEY’RE doing a good job.) And high GPAs? Well, there’s TFA’s total reliance on quantitative data, showing how little they know about the art of teaching and learning. I can think of quite a few 4.0 college students – including a few former students of mine – whom I wouldn’t trust grocery shopping, not to mention driving a car. To put them in front of a class because they have a high GPA would be ludicrous. As for leadership experience? Whatever. There are only so many student body president spots to go around. You’ve got to have some followers to be a leader.

    I used to cut TFA some slack and said that at least they were getting to see the state of some of the nation’s schools – the deferred maintenance, the mice/rats/bugs/mold, the 20 year old textbooks – and that perhaps some of them might help support public ed as they became parents, moved on to other positions. Instead they now undercut public ed at almost every chance they get – bashing traditionally trained teachers, becoming SCABS, working for charters, starting charters because they think they know better than teachers who have been teaching for 20 years (and they know there’s a profit to be made thanks to Bush and Arne and Obama), becoming administrators with only 2 years of “teaching” experience, becoming legislative aides because after 2 years of “teaching” they know everything there is to know about teaching and can advise legislators – the list goes on. I’ve been told not to blame the corp members – just the organization – but really, if these are the “best and the brightest” as they claim, perhaps they should 1) work on developing better bullshit detectors and see past the propaganda offered by TFA and 2) do some research so they know what they are getting into. At this point there is enough documentation on TFA that any fool can Google and find out there is some controversy. Thus I’m led to believe that the last thing I’ve been told about CMs – that they’re only in it for some quick money, something for their resume, and the internship/law school spot that comes after they complete their 2 years – is probably spot on. Thus children become nothing more than stepping stones to kick aside as TFA thrusts its way into that 1%.

    1. jo

      It’s not the ‘best and brightest’. A ‘high GPA’ ( 3.3) in a social science at a tier two school is just another route to unemployment, not even guaranteeing entry into optometry/nursing.

      At my school, kids aren’t clued into what this org is. They see it as a ‘feel good’ moment of helping the proles and building a resume. Of course B.S. ‘career services’ ply the myth as a stop gap from actually making contacts at employers.

      Once kids enter TFA, they quickly realize they’ve been had. Group think, bunk beds, non-payment of paltry salary, wanting to go off script with lessons, etc., really puts them off. In Memphis, there is a TFA cohort suing the organization. (I only know this through a friend.) There must be a plethora of lawsuits against this billionaire funded ‘non-profit’.

  13. CT

    Wow, I guess the political polarization has become “labor unions vs. charter/privitization/business interests.” I’m not interested in this fight, and it’s why I’m going to homeschool my kids.

    I believe that this system is broken and we’ll need to build a system outside of it in order to have something when the current system completely breaks down. Trying to reform the broken educational system is like local food advocates spending all their time trying to reform Archer Daniels Midland. Better to plant a garden and support other local food producers.

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