Education Reform: How Teach For America is Missing an Opportunity to Fix Education in America

The ongoing dispute between the traditional education establishment and educational non-profit Teach For America made an appearance in Reuters last week. The article details the mixed successes of TFA and summarizes the major criticisms of the organization. 

The article also completely misses the real failing of TFA and its model of education reform. In the last ten years, Teach For America has become the face of the education reform movement. It’s frequently viewed as a monolithic community bent on attacking teacher unions, promoting charter schools at the expense of neighborhood public schools, stripping away teacher tenure, and tying “teachers’ jobs and pay to their effectiveness at raising student test scores.” 

As a TFA alumnus, I’d agree with this assessment. What’s more, I think most of these things should happen. But why argue these points? This is well-trod territory, and countless articles and op-eds have been written arguing both sides of this debate. 

What goes unsaid in this debate is how trivial these reforms actually are and what genuine reform might actually look like. What TFA, and charter schools at large, strive to do isn’t radically different from what is already being done; they simply propose to do more of it. Longer school days, longer school years, increased testing, increased rigor: this is a strategy that benefits students academically but fails to consider the opportunity costs incurred in the process. 

TFA's attitude actually represents a return to the ideals of public education’s founding father, Horace Mann. Mann and his contemporaries believed that schools could save society, a standard TFA adopted for itself. 

According to both Mann and TFA, good teachers and schools can eradicate the effects of poverty, abolish juvenile delinquency, and close the gap between rich and poor. Any attempt to moderate these expectations is a concession of failure. Low-income students only need the ministrations of a devoted teacher, or in the words of a newly minted TFA corps member, these students simply need to be told, “That they have potential, [which] they haven't been told...before.” 

After two years of teaching, one of the most depressing aspects of my experience is that I no longer believe this. I came away disillusioned with the prospect of closing the achievement gap. I watched students with college-educated parents flourish in class. Rich or poor, two parents or one, the students that thrived came in with a certain combination of character and work ethic, and the students that didn’t...well, didn’t. 

The conditions that led to their academic deficiencies were still present, and the gap only widened for them over those two years. They made serious progress, yes, but not enough to catch up with their peers and certainly not enough to close the achievement gap. How could they? If a student has already internalized the habits and values of their parents or guardian--habits and values that may not be conducive to academic success-- can a teacher really change that in a single year? Is that a reasonable expectation for all teachers? 

And at a deeper level, is it good for families and parents to have schools and teachers blithely assume that they ought to do this, that their goals and worldview supersede those of the family? Where is the logical endpoint to the increasing intrusion in the lives of poor families?  

In TFA’s perfect world, all students would attend and graduate from a four-year college. For these liberators, college readiness is a mantra and the idea of college a panacea. Implicit in their worldview, however, is a judgment of ordinary working-class people. Rarely do TFA teachers speak to what a good life sans college might look like, which makes sense when you think about it-- they have no idea that such a thing exists much less know what it looks like. 

The average incoming TFA corps member is an exemplary student, a present and future leader of America, a person unacquainted with failure, a meritocratic king or queen of the mountain. The notion of not attending college stinks of failure for them; they don’t actually believe in success outside of a college degree. And this is the real failure of TFA, its impoverished imagination. 

A TFA committed to genuine reform would ask how our schools could prepare students for a success that doesn’t necessarily entail a college education. Does the high school curriculum look different? How does one teach curiosity and guide students to discovering their passion? More music classes? More vocational classes? Internships? Apprenticeships? A truly transformational TFA would go further and ask how our schools can reinforce the values of their students’ families and contribute to their character without also usurping the parents’ values and role in the process. 

Until TFA focuses less on conventional meritocratic achievement and expands their definition of success, it will be little better than the current education establishment.