Teach For America has been having a tough year. For a quarter-century, TFA has been recruiting talented young leaders to teach for at least two years in low-income communities. Today, this Peace Corps–inspired outfit is the nation’s largest teacher-preparation program, supplies more minority teachers than any other program, and has more than 30,000 alumni. And gold-standard studies suggest that its teachers produce above-average gains in student achievement.
But, in a perverse turn, TFA, filled with earnest liberals who are actually doing something, has spent the past year being vilified by a bunch of wannabe radicals who have mounted a campaign to ban them from recruiting on college campuses. In a campaign featuring the Twitter hashtag #resistTFA, the critics have attacked the organization as part of a “corporatist” attack on America’s schools.
The critics have been having an impact. Reports that TFA is having trouble meeting its recruiting targets have only added to the organization’s headaches. The New York Times reported that, with applications on college campuses down about 10 percent over the previous year, TFA has closed two of its eight national training sites. The recruiting shortfalls have given critics the opportunity to rehash their complaints. Hannah Nguyen, a University of Southern California junior who has organized anti–Teach for America protests, told the Times, “Teacher turnover really destabilizes a learning environment. . . . So having a model that perpetuates that inequity in and of itself was also very confusing for me.”
Under the banner of “United Students against Sweatshops” (USAS), TFA critics have mounted a long-running “truth tour” that aims to expose the “dark side of corporate education reform.” The group has sought to get TFA banned from recruiting on college campuses. Last fall it sent an open letter demanding that TFA curb its “agenda of dismantling public education.” In a nod to the critics, the Times story made the obligatory mention that TFA has “corporate sponsors like Wells Fargo and Comcast NBCUniversal” and that it receives charitable contributions “from the Walton family, and foundations overseen by the families of the billionaires John D. Arnold and Eli Broad.”
TFA has done a remarkable amount to elevate the appeal of teaching. It has brought tens of thousands of smart, impassioned young teachers into education. One of us can testify from personal experience that, back in 1990, when he was a first-year teacher, before the influx of TFA members into the profession, the energy and academic accomplishments that they would later bring were far less common. The other can confidently attest, as a former TFA corps member in the Mississippi Delta, that her colleagues were dedicated teachers who worked tirelessly on behalf of their students.
At the same time, while TFA deserves respect for its mission, track record, and willingness to do the hard work, there is a liberal groupthink that should trouble those who don’t share the organization’s profound social liberalism. TFA’s members are part of the bipartisan reform mainstream when it comes to questions like teacher tenure. However, its ranks suffer from a tendency to see everything through the lens of race, to celebrate Obama’s executive action on immigration and embrace his health-care policies, to cheer the virtues of higher taxes and more government programs, and to show little patience for conservatives or conservative thought.
This liberal bias, of course, is what makes so laughable the attacks on TFA as “corporate robber barons of education reform.” While Ivy League students can earn kudos for spouting this sort of tripe in their fem-lit seminars, it’s worth noting that TFA is a left-leaning nonprofit, which coexists with more than a thousand traditional teacher-preparation programs and recruits teachers and staff who could be earning a lot more elsewhere. Historically, “robber baron” is a term applied to monopolists who make outsized profits by controlling the market. But we suppose that kind of historical literalism has fallen out of vogue on campus.
TFA has allowed its critics to drag it into a depressing game of one-upmanship identity politics. This isn’t all that surprising, given the political leanings of most TFAers, but it is still disheartening. Attacked for helping to maintain hierarchical power structures and racial privilege, TFA has defensively pointed out that it is “one of the nation’s largest producers of African American and Latino teachers.” That appeal has failed to placate the USASers toiling in the hard-luck vineyards of UPenn and Berkeley, who have dismissed such responses for not addressing the “adverse structural effects” that TFA has “on public education in working class communities and communities of color across the country.”
Whatever its shortcomings, TFA is an organization of committed people working hard and trying to do some good for children trapped in poverty. There is no more powerful indictment of liberalism in 2015 than the fact that a handful of would-be radicals are trying to reduce the number of talented college graduates looking to teach students in the nation’s poorest communities.
— Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Sarah DuPre is a research assistant at AEI and a former Teach for America corps member.