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Looking Past the Spin: Teach for America

By Barbara Miner

Most Teach for America recruits are idealistic and dedicated. But who is behind the organization, and does its approach bolster or hinder urban education reform?

It is late at night, foggy and misty, and road construction has forced me off the interstate into downtown St. Louis. My Google directions are useless and I follow my nose, heading west on city streets to my hotel. I go past abandoned buildings, lonely gas stations, dimly lit rescue missions. I think of stopping to ask directions, but the neighborhood’s desolation gives me pause; it’s hard to find an open business, let alone any people walking about.

I am driving from Milwaukee to St. Louis for an article on Teach for America, to get a first-hand take on what is a media star in urban education reform. As I drive past yet another building with flaking paint and boarded-up windows, my cynicism grows. Do people honestly think that sending Ivy League graduates into the St. Louis schools for two years will somehow unlock the academic achievement that is seen as a cornerstone of rebuilding our cities? Can the antidote to educational inequity, urban disinvestment, and neighborhood decay really be so simple?

As my thoughts wander, I try to regain focus: I am writing a story about Teach for America and education reform, not the abandonment of low-income communities of color. They are two separate issues. Or so I keep reminding myself.

Two weeks later, back in Milwaukee after scores of interviews with TFA teachers and staff and with non-TFA educators and policy makers, I am still groping towards an understanding of the organization. I have come to distinguish between the generally hard-working, smart, and idealistic TFA classroom teachers, and a national organization that is as sophisticated, slippery, and media savvy as any group I have ever written about. TFA is perceived as a major player in the education wars over the future of public schools, and a key ally of those who disparage teacher unions and schools of education, and who are enamored of entrepreneurial reforms that bolster the privatization of a once-sacred public responsibility.

But what exactly is TFA’s role in these education wars? Who is directing the organization and to what ends? More importantly, what is TFA’s role in improving urban education?

Twenty years ago, Princeton University senior Wendy Kopp came up with her solution to low achievement: a Peace-Corps-type initiative called Teach for America. As she writes in her memoir, One Day, All Children..., this idea “exploded into a movement.” In two decades, the organization’s approach to eliminating educational inequality has not changed: Recruit smart, hard-working graduates from Ivy League and other highly competitive universities, and ask them to take a hiatus from their future careers to commit two years to teaching in a low-income urban or rural school.

But leaving aside issues such as poverty and inadequate school funding, it is universally acknowledged that one of the biggest problems in low-performing schools is the revolving door of inadequately prepared teachers. Does TFA’s two-years-and-out commitment feed into this problem and thus exacerbate educational inequity?

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