The Teach For America Bait and Switch: From ‘You’ll Be Making a Difference’ to ‘You’re Making Excuses’

By Jessica Millen, who graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2013. She was a 2013 Teach For America (TFA) corps member in New Orleans, where she taught third grade. She currently works as a preschool teacher in South Bend, Indiana

Editor’s note: In the decade and a half of its existence, Teach For America has trained upwards of 50,000 individuals to enter classrooms nationwide and “make a difference” in the lives of children — usually those living in poverty. But the question of how prepared these individuals are to deal with the realities faced by the children they teach and meet their educational needs has long been in question.

In the following excerpt, taken from an essay in the newly published book, Teach For America Counter-Narratives: Alumni Speak Up and Speak Out, one former TFA corps member shares her account of her time with the organization, alleging that TFA both “preyed on [her] naïveté of the lived realities of urban schooling” and “exploited [her] desire to ‘make a difference.'” Her disillusionment with the organization and its educational philosophy grew so deep, in fact, that she resigned after just 6 months.

The Bait

On the urging of a friend and campus recruiter, I applied to join TFA in October of my senior year at the University of Notre Dame. After a multipart interview process, I was accepted into the program’s Greater New Orleans region. Soon afterwards, TFA began to effectively use social networks to bolster my desire to join. Former classmates and undergraduate campus recruiters reached out and stressed how wonderful it was that I had gotten into such a selective organization. My interviewer called to congratulate me on a job well done. After being bombarded with so many congratulations, I couldn’t help but feel proud that I had passed through such a selective hiring process.

The official TFA recruiter on my campus held events for accepted corps members after each hiring deadline, offering free drinks and appetizers at an on-campus restaurant. I found it strange how much money TFA, a nonprofit organization, spent on us. We wore name tags, ate food, and discussed our excitement about the upcoming school year. Our recruiter, like the other TFA corps members and staff who had reached out to me, stressed the “prestige” of the program and how much TFA would help us in the future. He himself was a former TFA corps member who taught for 3 years before joining the recruiting arm of the organization. I found his enthusiasm for TFA contagious as he pointed out TFA’s connections with graduate schools and the numerous opportunities that would be afforded to us post-TFA.

At the time, I was impressed by how many corps members were still involved in public education. According to TFA, more than 775 alumni were in school leadership positions at schools across the country (Teach For America, 2012a). I was glad to hear that TFA wasn’t always just used as a stepping stone to more lucrative careers; information on the TFA website boasted that as of August 2013, 78% of alumni from the Greater New Orleans region were still in education (Teach For America, 2012b). I didn’t bother to look up the evidence behind TFA’s claims. I trusted that the information from this professional organization that seemed to care so much about children was ethically collected, compiled, and reported. I now know that the organization’s assertion that “Teach For America corps members help their students achieve academic gains equal to or larger than teachers from other preparation programs, according to the most recent and rigorous studies on teacher effectiveness” (Teach For America, 2012c) is, at best, extremely misleading. Reviews of the research cited by TFA to back its claims of corps member effectiveness ultimately reveal a less favorable picture; the majority of studies listed by TFA are not peer-reviewed, are problematic, and/or produced mixed results (Kovacs & Slate-Young, 2013; Vasquez Heilig & Jez, 2014).

But taking TFA’s claims of effectiveness at face value, I continued to be wooed by the organization. Besides the free events hosted by the campus recruiter, TFA offered additional financial incentives to make the bait even sweeter. I remember gushing to my parents that I would not only receive a full teacher’s salary, but also get funding to cover the transitional costs of moving and living during the summer before I began teaching. As an indebted college student, it seemed that, on top of using my skills and education to serve in public education, I was making a solid financial decision in joining TFA. Such tantalizing benefits convinced me that not only was I making a strong move for my future, but I would also be “making a difference” in the lives of low-income and minority students. As a young, well-educated, idealistic student, I took the bait—hook, line and sinker.

The “Training”

After a 7-hour drive to TFA’s summer training Institute in Atlanta, I was excited to begin. Although I had been warned that Institute could be an overwhelming experience, the intensity of our schedule was still surprising. Breakfast at 5:30 am, followed by a full day at our school sites, a quick dinner, additional training sessions in the evening, and then trying to complete the next day’s lesson plans was the perfect recipe for sleep deprivation, and left little time to process all this new information.

During this training, the organization’s “you’ll be making a difference” message became more insistent. Each morning, after being bused to our school site in the early morning, we were greeted by our school director. After signing in, we all gathered in our school site’s library to begin our morning with an inspirational video. Over the course of those 5 weeks we watched what seemed to be every single well-known, inspirational education video on YouTube. We saw Kid President’s “Pep Talk to Teachers and Students!”, listened to Taylor Mali tell us “What Teachers Make,” watched Sir Ken Robinson’s animation video “Changing Education Paradigms,” and many, many more.

Their model was working! At the time, I was inspired and eager to be in the classroom. Here I was, part of this great movement that was going to make a difference! So swept up in the staff members’ fervor, I did not stop to think about why we were being shown all these inspirational and emotionally charged messages, or what they would ultimately contribute to my ability to be a competent, caring, and effective teacher.

It didn’t end with just morning bursts of “let’s change the world.” Throughout our training sessions, we were often shown videos of real TFA teachers working in their classrooms. They were always uplifting clips, showing well-behaved students and enthusiastic teachers. We were told they had started just like us at one point in time, although the teachers’ educational backgrounds were never divulged. We were never shown any videos of “bad” teachers or teachers who were struggling, nor did we see how teachers deal with students who are challenging behaviorally, or even defiant. And we were certainly never shown how to handle students’ physical altercations or emotional breakdowns.

I had expected more hands-on training throughout the program. But with only a half hour to an hour and half in front of students each day, I found that we spent more time talking about how we were going to be make a difference rather than learning how to be effective teachers who could ultimately “make a difference.”

In addition to watching inspirational videos, we listened to many TFA staff members give talks about the rewarding nature of teaching. They showed us pictures of themselves and their students and told stories of how they had impacted their students’ lives. These peppy speakers were extremely positive, only occasionally using vague phrasing to describe teaching as “the hardest thing you’ll ever do.” There was no delving into why it was the “hardest thing I would ever do.” nor was there space to ask the speakers to elaborate. While I recognize that it might be difficult to convey the specific challenges that come with the first year of teaching, when such uplifting testimony is paired with only examples of successful TFA teachers, it was easy and safe for me to assume that I would soon begin “making a difference” once I entered the classroom on my own.

The “making a difference” message was not limited to our sessions in classroom management and pedagogy. During our training, we attended two huge pep rallies, one at the beginning and one at the end of Institute. As the Atlanta Institute hosted multiple TFA regions, the auditorium was packed. At the opening rally we were greeted by a huge PowerPoint slide declaring “One Day,” highlighting TFA’s mantra that “One day all children will have access to an excellent education.” The title of the evening’s program was “Your Role in the Movement for Educational Equity.” After listening to speakers thank us for undertaking the journey we were about to begin, I felt excited. It seemed like TFA was an organization that was actually making a tangible difference in communities across the United States.

Before the closing pep rally, each school site’s corps members created a chant to be shared with the full assembly. Most corps members had purchased t-shirts for their school sites, and as we filed in to our assigned school site spaces, the chanting began. Huge groups of matching corps members were on their feet, yelling at the top of their lungs the cheers they had written. Soon, the TFA staff running the rally began to moderate the cheering, shouting each school site’s name and encouraging each group to be louder than the rest. After more peppy speakers, a student brass band played the corps members out, matching the same frenzied enthusiasm that the hundreds of young, soon-to-be teachers had displayed. In retrospect, the techniques used at these rallies made it feel more like a multilevel marketing convention than a gathering of thoughtful educators. It is strange that TFA felt the need to use such manipulative methods of drumming up enthusiasm on a group of well-educated individuals already committed to their organization.

The Switch

After those 5 weeks of training, I was alone in a classroom with 27 eight- and nine-year-olds. I had no idea what to do with the rigorous and inflexible curriculum modalities that dictated what I taught and when. There was nothing in our training that indicated our teaching lives would be so scripted and controlled. Moreover, I was confused by strict administrative policies that were completely developmentally inappropriate; for instance, my third graders were allowed only 20 minutes of recess, once a week. Again, there was no mention of what to do when school-wide policies were completely incongruent with what I knew at this point to be developmentally appropriate practices.

Trying to balance the demands and expectations of both my school and TFA was challenging, especially when both parties were extremely focused on data and standardized testing to the detriment of what my young students needed. This made it difficult for me to realize my vision of schooling. While I understood the necessity of assessment and its usefulness in gauging how much students know, and therefore in future lesson planning, both my school and TFA’s focus on testing overshadowed my legitimate concerns for students’ emotional and social well-being and academic growth beyond what could be measured in omnipresent assessments. I had to prepare my students for weekly and quarterly testing, on top of looming state-mandated tests that would also measure my success as a teacher. The pressure from both the state and district to raise student test scores manifested in my administration’s extreme concern with test scores and maximizing instructional time not only in specific subjects but also to specific isolated skill sets, always to the detriment of exploring other important areas of elementary education, such as exposure to culture, creative and scientific thinking, music, and art.

Armed only with TFA’s strictly behaviorist methods of classroom management, I was unprepared for many of the issues I faced, and my classroom quickly spiraled out of control. From my 5 weeks of training, I was knowledgeable only about behaviorist management methods that focused on giving clear directions, narrating student behavior when they were following directions, and then giving consequences to those students not complying. These management methods were presented as best practices during our training; no other alternatives were mentioned.

After attempting to use TFA’s preferred classroom management system in my own classroom, I realized that the behaviorist theory of management was not working for my students or for me. When I expressed these feelings to TFA staff members, however, my concerns were ignored and brushed aside. In one meeting with my real-time coach from TFA, who had 4 years of teaching experience, I expressed how uncomfortable I was with forcing my students to remain seated all the time. My coach insisted that students learn best when they are seated. He then noticed that, according to the scripted conversation template from TFA, we had gone over the allotted time for this portion of our meeting. Rather than continuing a conversation that could have helped me understand TFA’s position, he decided that following the prescribed conversation model was more important and ended the discussion. Looking back, it is easy to see why I felt that I was not being supported or listened to by TFA staff. Suddenly, I found myself hearing a different story than the one I was told during the application and training process. Now, instead of “making a difference,” I was told I was “making excuses,” by not believing in myself enough and not being the leader of my classroom.

I met with my TFA manager of teacher leadership development (MTLD) every so often for a check-in. It is interesting to note here that corps members are “managed” by TFA, as if they were commodities, rather than “guided” or “mentored.” At one of these meetings, my MTLD told me she wanted me to have lunch with all my students, so that I could work on “building relationships.” I had already begun to have lunch with small groups of students occasionally, but I was having trouble finding the time to eat with students every day, given the other demands on my time as a new educator. When I brought up what I thought were legitimate concerns—the fact that I had only 25 minutes for lunch, which included dropping off/picking up my students at the cafeteria, and that my administration had concerns about me “rewarding” students who often were not following school rules (eating with students was seen as a reward, not simply a good practice to develop relationships)—my TFA manager told me, “I’m hearing a lot of excuses from you.”

In addition to telling me that I was making excuses, my manager also said that I did not believe in myself enough. As a confident young woman who had had a successful experience at Institute, where I was told, “Your students are going to be so lucky to have you” and “You’re doing so well,” I knew I could be an excellent teacher. I believed in my students and their potential, and had a wealth of knowledge about education, children, and learning, largely from my undergraduate studies. My end-of-Institute award was for “believing in your students.” To be told I didn’t believe in my students or myself was insulting, and not the type of support I expected to receive from TFA staff members.

TFA staff members repeatedly told me that I was not being the leader of my classroom, in the sense that I did not have strict control over my students’ bodily movements. Within TFA’s model of behavioral control, I was expected to have all of my students sitting in their seats at all times, and to accomplish this particular aspect of classroom management by consistently giving consequences. On an intellectual level, I recognized that giving consequences was a necessary part of their management system. It was not that I was incapable of giving my students consequences; the problem was that my vision of schooling did not include a classroom where the teacher is all-powerful, all-knowledgeable, and in strict control at all times. What I was beginning to understand was that there was no room in their model for my vision; in fact, my vision was completely contrary to their understanding of how schooling should be conducted and why. TFA’s Teaching as Leadership model is based upon the idea that teachers are responsible for everything that happens inside of the classroom, regardless of whether or not you agree with the techniques and content you are being forced to adopt (Farr, 2010).

My frustration deepened when TFA staff ignored the fact that there were other factors at work in and out of my classroom that affected student behavior and achievement. I was unable to choose curriculum or what was taught when. TFA’s model of behavioral control and TFA staff instructed me to use extremely scripted sets of phrases, limiting my freedom to develop my own style of classroom instruction that suited my unique context. In addition to this, TFA staff ignored the life circumstances of many of my students. I could not change the circumstances that led Jerome to bring a roach-infested notebook to school, or the fact that Peter’s mother told him to “get his lick back,” meaning that if someone hits him, he should hit back. Whenever I tried to bring up the lived realities of my students’ lives and the real challenges they faced, once again, I was told I was “making excuses.” Despite my having personal knowledge of my students and their families, my voice and ultimately my potential to use alternative methods and ideas for creating a more learner-centered, productive environment was repeatedly pushed aside, as it contradicted TFA talking points.

In the end, I decided to leave. I could not, in good conscience, continue to work for an organization whose guiding educational philosophy varied so greatly from my own. It was not a decision I made lightly, leaving the very students I was trying to love and teach. But after I decided to leave, there came a small moment when I knew I had made the right choice. As I was waiting on duty for the last of the buses to arrive, Sarah caught my eye. She and her younger brother were role-playing the teacher-student relationship and the words coming out of Sarah’s mouth broke my heart: “You’re receiving a consequence! You have earned a lunch detention. You get a consequence!” These are the words and phrases she had heard me use repeatedly, again and again, over and over, as I strove to enact my MTLD’s mandate to give lots of consequences. I had spent 3 months with this child and all I taught her about what it means to be a teacher is that a teacher gives consequences. This was devastating to me, and it was then that I realized that the bait and switch was complete.

For more of this essay, and many other perspectives on the Teach For America experience, you can purchase the complete book of essays here.

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  1. Gerard Pierce

    This was an excellent and informative article. Beyond the authors personal experience, there is a political ideology that determines who in a community supports TFA. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that this political ideology goes hand in glove with who makes a buck out of TFA chartered schools.

    I’d like to hear more from those who actually know.

    1. abynormal

      Charter School balance sheets seldom surface but for spin reasons we glimpse the drain…here’s an example of where they can’t help themselves (i suspect extractors aren’t keen on this):

      Success Academy charter schools’ revenue doubles in a year; CEO Eva Moskowitz’s pay jumps to $567K
      EXCLUSIVE: The charter school network hauled in a whopping $34.6 million for the financial year ending June 2013, which is up from $16.7 million the previous year, according to tax documents obtained by the Daily News.
      Success Academy officials said the funds came from a mix of contributions, grants and funding from the city for the operations of their schools.

      “Success Academy has many generous donors — we received more than 1,900 individual gifts last year, most of them less than $1,000,” said Moskowitz
      here’s another peek at the extractors tax perks etc:

      “According to The New York Times, the ten highest paid hedge fund operators with close ties to charter schools also includes David Tepper (number 1 at $3.5 billion in 2013), founder of founder of Appaloosa Management and New Jersey based “Better Education for Kids”; Steven A. Cohen (number 2 at $2.4 billion) of SAC Capital Advisors, which was forced to pay a $1.2 billion dollar penalty for insider trading, who has given over $10 million to the Achievement First charter school network; and Paul Tudor Jones II (tied for tenth at $600 million), founder of the Tudor Investment Corporation who has supported charter schools through his Robin Hood Foundation.”
      The financial documents show Moskowitz’s network of 32 city charter schools took in a whopping $34.6 million for the financial year ending June 2013.

    2. washunate

      Fun factoid you may enjoy: Wendy Kopp (TFA) is married to Richard Barth (KIPP). KIPP (the largest charter school network in the country) was founded by two TFA alumni. Small world as they say.

        1. washunate

          Yeah, there’s some good language from the past.

          In unrelated news, I don’t think scab is an approved term in the TFA history curriculum.

    3. k.kkl

      As someone that taught, leaving the TFA and its neoliberal clones was the best thing she could have done for education. Most principals don want tfa, but are forced to spend money on it for political reasons. by leaving, she is helping the principal build a case to get it removed. everyone should leave tfa. at this point, it is merely a union busting, charterizing tool of the elite. It’s also a disgusting ‘non-profit’ that pays its leaders large six figure salaries. additionally, there is no teacher shortage. 50 percent of grads quit within five years of graduation, that is those that find work…

  2. cripes

    John Taylor Gatto, the underappreciated and ailing critic of our mis-education system, and holder of numerous teaching awards, had this to say about american schooling:

    “School is about learning to wait your turn, however long it takes to come, if ever. And how to submit with a show of enthusiasm to the judgment of strangers, even if they are wrong, even if your enthusiasm is phony.”

    “Children learn what they live. Put kids in a class and they will live out their lives in an invisible cage, isolated from their chance at community; interrupt kids with bells and horns all the time and they will learn that nothing is important or worth finishing; ridicule them and they will retreat from human association; shame them and they will find a hundred ways to get even. The habits taught in large-scale organizations are deadly.”

    “Our form of compulsory schooling is an invention of the State of Massachusetts around 1850. It was resisted — sometimes with guns — by an estimated eighty percent of the Massachusetts population, the last outpost in Barnstable on Cape Cod not surrendering its children until the 1880s, when the area was seized by militia and children marched to school under guard.”

    An Underground History of American Education
    sets forth in 440 pages of gruesome detail the development of american education by the managerial industrialists.

    According to William Torrey Harris, U.S. Commissioner of Education from 1889 to 1906:

    “Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in
    prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an
    accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is
    the subsumption of the individual.
    –The Philosphy of Education (1906)

    From the horse’s mouth.

    1. Anna Zimmerman

      Thanks so much for this link (an Underground History…). This is surely one of the next frontiers of resistance.

      1. OregonChris

        It is my understanding that home schooling numbers are growing. My family has become serious about it since full day kindergarten has recently been mandated in our state.

    2. sid_finster

      Funny how when I read this piece, I also thought “Calling John Taylor Gatto! John Taylor Gatto, please pick up the white courtesy phone.”

      There should be a statue of John Taylor Gatto astride a demolished elementary school.

      Buck naked.

      Riding a horse.

  3. flora

    Sounds like TFA teaches both the college kids and the poor school kids to know their place. That’s an education …of sorts.
    The worst sort.

  4. jgordon

    I can entirely sympathize. Back in the 80s and 90s when I was going through public schools in Florida my experience wasn’t quite as bad as what Jessica was forced to inflict on students; but it was still bad enough for me to come out of the school system with an enduring hatred for organized education and authority in general. And the soul-destroying nature of formal education has only been more perfected since then.

    What exactly is the point of education anyway? Rather than creating critically thinking informed citizens (was there ever a point in American history when it was ever about that?), our educational system seems from the ground up designed to produce obedient, and not especially curious, cogs. The fundamental programming inputted into the young by our culture is, at it’s route, ultimately destructive and suicidal to our species. Even an “improved” education system would still attempt to impart that programming. It’s in our cultural DNA. To my thinking, no education at all would be much preferable.

    1. diptherio

      …the soul-destroying nature of formal education has only been more perfected since then

      During my public school career, I took all of two standardized tests. One in 5th grade and one as a junior in high school, iirc. Now students do at least one per year! Our education system has definitely been changing–and not for the better.

      1. Jerry

        diptherio—Where was your school and when did you attend?

        My experience in Iowa is that kids have taken standardized tests at least annually since 1960.

        1. sam s smith

          Texas in the 1980’s only gave 1 test that I could remember, sometime during the junior year.

        2. cwaltz

          I graduated in 1986 in Florida and I don’t remember taking any standardized tests beyond the placement tests at the beginning of the school year. Yes, you were required to turn in a term paper and you were required to have x amount of math, english, science and social studies credits but the teachers were the people who determined whether or not you passed their classes, not a standardized test. Of course, that also had mixed results. I did okay but my brother essentially got put in “special classes” because he was considered disruptive(having no father figure because yours was in prison probably does that to some kids). It’s kind of sad because we were tested as kids and my brother actually had more potential than I did. Unfortunately, without people who understood the special needs of a child who grew up in a household with turmoil, he essentially never achieved that potential.

        3. Dakool

          That’s because standardized tests (ITBS and ITED) were provided by American College Testing (ACT) free of charge for decades. This was courtesy of American College Testing, located in Iowa City.

    2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      What we should be teaching to our students:

      1. How to live a health life, protecting oneself from toxicity in food and in our environment.
      2. How to think critically
      3. To understand education has nothing to do with one’s success in the machine or the system.

      We will elect better leaders when our education system does its job.

      1. Ping

        I think the lack of real education about finances and money
        is deliberate. Makes for an easy population to fleece.

    3. Pepsi

      There’s some really good writing on the subject. After the student movement, the university system had its goal changed from the creation of good citizens, able to think critically, to a sort of white collar trade school where ruling ideologies were instilled, not questioned.

      I’m not exactly sure about elementary, before no child left behind, but I’m sure you’ll be able to find something with a good search.

    4. Viv Barker

      That’s probably because your state is home to the Iowa Basic Skills tests, a 70+-yr lab experiment for the university. Iowa lab rats have probably been taking them annually for decades.

      Although the test became popular nationally, different states selected the tests they wanted to use. My memory of NYS public ed in the ’50’s-’60’s is we took them twice in primary & annually in jr hi. (After that we took Regents in every course.)

      My kids’ NJ public ed in the ’90’s-’00’s was exactly the same. (Except in hi school there was only the practice HSPA & HSPA, a
      h.s. exit exam started in the ’00’s)… but due to NCLB, in the 00’s, NJ began phasing in annual testing for 3rd grade & up – those pleasant lo-pressure ‘basic skills’ tests bowed out which is a shame. As a parent I found the 2 widely-spaced (2nd & 5th-gr) Iowa tests very helpful for a picture of overall progress, which helped select options for middle school. Annual testing is TMI!

  5. jrs

    It’s often suggested that the problem with “teach to test” and run-away testing is that kids do not learn to think but only to pass tests. That may be, but maybe, we also overemphasize the intellect. The kids are ALSO at that point not being taught a lot ELSE … like how to empathize and contribute as part of a community etc.. Perhaps that is exactly what teach to test was designed to destroy in it’s quest for not just a stupid but a soulless populace (I’m not presupposing some prior Eden in schooling existed, just that things can get worse).

    But it’s barely noticeable, unless you read people who pleaded for this and plead they did, I’m currently reading Alfred Adler.

    But at any rate a system as described above can not be accidental can it? It can not run contrary to so much accumulated knowledge and do it all out of mere ignorance … malice and deliberate design seem far more plausible.

    She doesn’t sound like she really taught as some worst of the worst inner city schools though, as the conditions described while bad for a lot of bureaucratic reasons, are not bad enough. Because I’ve heard to teach at the worst inner city schools is to encounter not just bureaucratic but societal failure, complete dysfunction in the environments the kids come from.

    But at any rate she’s lied to like a student suckered into a for-profit colleges sales pitch (though that suckers poorer people generally), then subjected to what sounds more like a cult indoctrination than anything (no sleeping, really? that’s a brainwashing technique). And yes the rallies, I’ve occasionally had them in the corporate world, she’s kind to link them to MLM, I immediately link them to a certain German historical demagogue.

    1. Uahsenaa

      It doesn’t have to be deliberate or the result of malice, actually. Public education in the U.S. is the servant of many masters, all of which have varying knowledge of educational methods (often none) and span a broad ideological spectrum. You have a federal government which mandates (Common Core) while providing neither the funding nor a terribly clear sense of how one might satisfy those requirements. Then you have state education departments/boards who actually pay the bills and so have their own list of demands that a) must respond to federal mandates while b) adding another layer of requirement and obfuscation. Then there are local school boards, typically elected, who control a different set of funding, and so have their own layer of demands and obfuscations. Then you have the administrators, from the superintendent (what is this, a prison?) down to principals and counselors, whose ethos stems largely from the desire to maintain order above all else, which is why you get silly things like elaborate rules as to how much skin a teenage girl can show.

      The dysfunction results, from how all these interact rather poorly. To use my own example, Iowa City has a liberal-ish school board (meaning a stark divide between conservative midwestern types and card carrying Marxists), a very conservative state legislature that talks a good game on education but always manages to find a new tax cut to justify underfunding things, and a federal government whose educational guidelines actively discourage thinking beyond what you see right in front of you, whether it’s a passage from Beloved or a set of equations to integrate. All of these masters must be served, so a great deal of time is wasted just trying to figure out how you manage to have a curriculum at all while still satisfying demands. Students, then, are herded from one assessment to another with little sense of why they are doing so. The administrators make clear, though, that your options as a student are to sit the test or sit in detention.

      1. washunate

        It doesn’t have to be deliberate or the result of malice, actually.

        Agreed, it doesn’t have to be. But most of the assault on public education is.

      2. Michael Fiorillo

        Believe me, as a public school teacher in NYC during the Bloomberg years (and continuing now, under the “pwogwessive” De Blasio administration), there was/ is plenty of incompetence, but the drivers were/are malice motivated by greed and the will to power…

  6. dorane

    It’s reassuring to see an extensive, complete, and completely creepy bureaucracy in place to track her every move.

  7. tomk

    Great article. Ever since my kids were in kindergarten I’ve wondered how and why punishments became consequences. I guess to give a sense of inevitability to them, as if the teacher had no say in the matter, which increasingly they don’t, apparently.

  8. TheCatSaid

    Good article. John Holt is another giant. Reading his observations about what is really being learned in classrooms forever changed how I do many things, literally overnight.

  9. washunate

    Great read. I think we will get more and more of these stories as the assault on locally controlled, neighborhood public schools reaches its climax in the US. There is virtually nothing left that someone would recognize of ‘public school’ from 30 or 40 years ago in all but the wealthiest school districts.

    The ability of the charter school movement to undermine the value of public schooling and public school teachers over the past quarter century by getting lots of enthused temp workers into public schools whie creaming lower cost, compliant students out of public schools was brilliant strategy. It’s almost like TFA and KIPP have been literally working hand in hand…

    1. Michael Fiorillo

      Not “almost” working hand in hand, but far more intimately than that, literally and figuratively: Richard Barth, President of the KIPP Foundation, is married to TFA’s founder, Wendy Kopp.

      The founders of KIPP are also TFA alums, natch…

      1. washunate

        Yeah, I’ve noticed sometimes in more Democratic leaning circles a desire to separate individual components of the assault on public education so as not to paint it as one cohesive philosophy. But TFA is such a great case study because you just cannot do that. Deprofessionalizing and routinizing teaching, as if it’s a factory production schedule rather than human beings, is inseparable from the charter school movement and the testing movement.

        1. Michael Fiorillo

          Indeed, and TFA is where the “leaders” of so-called education reform are indentified, groomed and trained for leading the hostile takeover of public education. That’s why it’s no accident that wherever public school systems are in crisis, there’s usually a TFA alum in a position of leadership.

          Wendy Kopp has herself written that TFA’s purpose is not to provide teachers for poor communities – how could it be, when they receive no meaningful training and are temps? – but rather to develop the leadership cadre for privatizing the schools… and all of it with insufferable quantities of arrogance and condescension…

  10. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    “…the problem was that my vision of schooling did not include a classroom where the teacher is all-powerful, all-knowledgeable, and in strict control at all times.”

    Perhaps not the last bit about being strict control at all times, but it happens often that the professor in one’s class is all-powerful, all knowledge and this has induced many professor-student romances.

  11. EmilianoZ

    This article is a bait and switch itself. There’s nothing about scabbing here. It’s mainly about a teacher who disagrees with the strict disciplinarian methods of TFA.

    The most interesting part is about the training, especially the inordinate amount of pep talks, pep events the trainee was subjected to. When did corporate culture become so much about pep? I’ve had to endure a few sessions myself. I’ve always found them very embarrassing.

    1. RalphR

      If you don’t understand that Teach for America itself is a mechanism for recruiting scabbers, you are sorely lacking in basic perceptual skills. I don’t have a problem with reminding people of TFA’s real aims along with discussing more specific shortcomings.

    2. jrs

      In the corporate world such rallies have sent me into an unable to work for the rest of the day depression (short lived of course), even though I came in expecting to work. There’s something deeply degrading and insulting to one’s basic human dignity in being subjected to that stuff, that even work that is menial and/or pointless doesn’t equal!

    3. washunate

      I agree, but I think it’s what makes these kinds of essays powerful and poignant. This is not some activist railing against TFA. This is someone who, as she describes in the training, was already committed to the organization. It’s like observing that even Ron Paul knows the drug war is bad. TFA is so bad that even people who genuinely think that TFA is doing tangible good end up disgusted by it when they reflect upon what they are experiencing.

  12. TruthAddict

    My wife went through the TFA program. What a nightmare that was, it nearly broke her emotionally and spiritually.
    Just another predatory corporation that subsists on exploitation of the most vulnerable and inexperienced members of society. Funny thing was, the main TFA office was located In the same building, on the same floor, as the local dept of education office. How that was managed would be an interesting story. What do they call mergers of private corps and public institutions again?

  13. Gavin

    This article is a description of a cult brainwashing technique. Unfortunately it’s not the brainchild of one political party or the other – it’s both.

    Note the lack of specificity around the asserted claims and the resultant playing to emotion to promote the end goal of the organization’s solution. Note the blaming of the “person” rather than the organization’s proposed process – this is an isolation method to ensure the individual thinks they’re the only one who doubts.

    Deprogramming from a cult is tough, because genuine trust of people should be freely extended. I sincerely hope the teachers who fall prey to these traps [through no fault of their own] are interested and willing to work to not be cynical towards life.. perhaps with counseling, perhaps with smart friends who are aware of the actual evil of people, etc.

    1. Linda

      When we read about the number of astroturf groups, created as the result of funding, from discount retail oligarchs, and test and tech company moguls, and aimed at teachers, it’s downright scary.
      The website “Sourcewatch”, (from the Center for Media and Democracy), has a partial listing, in its section for, Astroturf, subtitle, Education.

  14. Linda

    In a recent college alumni magazine interview, a self-identified former TFA state chair describes her current position as an executive at an organization that crowd sources donations for teachers in schools, in high poverty areas. She said, a TFA Board member recruited her for the position. She described one of her favorite projects, blue blazers and red bow ties, for 3rd graders in a school in S.C.. She says, “It was so powerful (to whom?) to see how proud the boys were of themselves-they looked like a million dollars and felt like it. “They “marched down the hallway, heads up, shoulders back”, to read with a man from their community, a “grown-up in his OWN jacket and tie”. Surely, there are more direct correlative indicators of academic performance, than sartorial pride. And, how often is Warren Buffett (Bill Gates’ backer), described as wearing his OWN suit?
    Ed. reform promotion is based on a promise of future jobs, about which hedge funders and Wall Street know nothing. The U.S. financial sector drags down GDP and its parasitic top 0.2%, don’t send their kids to schools where the children wear costumes.
    In the interview, the woman goes on to say, “Risk-friendly environments are where people and organizations really grow.” Ed. reformer, Bill Gates, achieved his success in a stable upper middle class neighborhood, the son of a lawyer. Poor children don’t thrive in risky organizations like charter school schemes and, for-profit, on-line schools nor, do they thrive in schools, starved for funds, like public education. And, while this philanthropic exec. claims to enjoy risky environments, I don’t see much risk in making the amount of money, her philanthropy makes, from the donations of people who presumably want to help disadvantaged children.
    The interviewee’s statements made me cringe. If they reflect the perceptions of TFA leadership, I don’t think TFA is improving America and, I question if they aren’t causing more harm than good.

  15. Donna

    When all these smart college students wake up to the realities of TFA, they will stop “enlisting” to be “corps” members. As if it were a Peace Corp–unbelievable. The only good TFA has done is to fatten Wendy Kopp’s and her husband’s bank accounts. TFA has been instrumental in undermining public education, unions, and children of color. KIPP and charters like it with there “no excuses” discipline policies treats children like prisoners–it is as if it is preparing them for life in a criminal institution. The fact that our government has aided and abetted TFA disgusts me. Shame on them, AND, I WANT MY TAXES BACK, thank you.

  16. Cyrus Bechtold

    I remember gushing to my parents that I would not only receive a full teacher’s salary, but also get funding to cover the transitional costs of moving and living during the summer before I began teaching. As an indebted college student, it seemed that, on top of using my skills and education to serve in public education, I was making a solid financial decision in joining TFA.

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