Response to Joshua Tang’s Response to my TFA Article

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*-my notes in plain text-*

I would like to respond to Ms. Lucy Griswold’s opinion piece on Teach For America — “Teach [For] America can’t offer real solutions to education inequality” — published on Feb. 4, 2014. Griswold’s piece presents an interesting perspective. However, she makes a few errors.

I should say that Teach For America has made it possible for me to take advantage of amazing opportunities. I was part of the recruitment team that helped the University of Texas at Austin become the top contributing university to the 2013 corps. I also took advantage of the opportunity to intern on the recruitment team at TFA’s Manhattan headquarters. Griswold makes a few errors in her opinion piece. One of the most glaring is that she claims “TFA was a way to [teach in an under resourced district] while getting a master’s degree for free.” The link that she provides debunks her claim. TFA corps members may receive $5,350 grants in AmeriCorps funding that can be used to help pay for a graduate degree or repay qualified student loans. That is hardly receiving a master’s degree “for free.” It is true, however, that many TFA corps members are required to or choose to complete a M.Ed. while they teach.

I was aware at the time this article was published of how exactly TFA participants pay for their Masters and certification programs.  That’s why the hyperlink was there.  This process is complex, and can vary by region and participant as you pointed out.  Had I applied to TFA, I would have preferenced cities where these costs would effectively be taken care of. TFA makes this easy, posting detailed information about expenses for each of its partner cities.  In the sentence Tang is pulling from, which is inaccurately summarized, I was trying to make this clear by specifically pointing to my unique interests in the program, not those of perhaps the general prospective applicant.

Additionally, when I worked as a full-time intern in DC Public Schools last semester, in an office dominated by TFA alum, this was the exact verbiage they used when encouraging me to apply to the organization.  It seems that for many participants, the funds from compensation for labor, grants and scholarships pay for these degrees, creating a relatively accessible avenue to advanced education for those who otherwise would have had more difficulties.

Second, Griswold mistakenly attempts to link Teach For America to an attempt to “[apply] business practices such as increasing competition, emphasizing data and evaluation and promoting efficiency in the educational sphere.” Her argument is based on TFA “being funded in large part” by the Walton Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  The assertion “TFA is funded in large part” is false, and the link between those two groups’ donations and corporatization is not clear.

The full quote would have revealed that I wrote, “funded in large part by wealthy benefactors such as.”  I did not say that these two foundations were singularly responsible for funding the large part of organization as Tang suggested.  These were merely examples of the prevailing types of donors.  More on this below…

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is listed along with Arizona State University, The Dream Fund at UCLA and the UCLA Foundation as “Champion Investors.” The Walton Foundation is listed as providing at least $5 million in support of TFA in fiscal year 2011. However, at least $10 million was donated to TFA from states and the federal government. TFA receives donations from a wide range of groups and does not seem to rely more heavily on either of the foundations Griswold mentioned.

As for the Walton Foundation, in 2011, the year Tang mentioned, they announced they were giving a $49.5 million dollar grant to TFA, an “investment” intended to double amount of recruits to the program in three years.  The Walton Foundation donates around $150 million to conservative-minded education groups annually, supporting organizations that promote vouchers, merit-pay and charters.  The Gate’s are also major players in shaping ed reform, spending over $2 billion since 2008 on various education related projects.  Like the Walton’s, the majority of this funding is directed at groups that share a more conservative vision for education reform.  For example, more than one third of their funding was spent on their effort to “improve teacher quality”—a measure that relies on the myth that bad teachers are at the center of America’s education problems.  Unlike any of the organizations Tang lists, these two foundations are undisputed key players in ed reform (known to those engaged in the ed debate as two of the “Big Three”) which is why they were relevant to include here.  In recent years, only 30% of TFA’s funding  has come from from public sources.  Even if we could think of this as a more neutral or apolitical funding source (which we cannot) it does not make up a relatively insignificant amount of their funding streams.

I am not sure why using data or being efficient in the educational sphere is a bad thing. I hope that educators will make the most informed decisions possible when deciding what’s best for their students.

One negative consequence of this is a new reliance on testing data to label, sort and “target” students.  For low-performing schools, more high-stakes test means more teaching to the test (or just teaching test taking strategies.)  This means less time in subjects that aren’t commonly tested such as history and the arts and more time dedicated to rote learning.  Efforts to develop tests that assess higher order skills, such as those aligning with the Common Core, have not lived up to their expectations and have been widely criticized for minimally updating existing testing materials. When student scores are tied to teacher-pay (another coveted business practice) this incentivizes cheating, as evidenced by the scandals in DC and Atlanta among other cities.

As for your comment, “I hope that educators will make the most informed decisions…” I agree.  However, the  “educators ” you’re referring to are selectively choosing data to push through reforms that serve their vision of ed “reform” and their interests.  This so-called adherence to “data-driven policy making” is laughable when you consider how often these reformers ignore sound research that simply does not align with their preconceived notions about how to change education.  Additionally, these foundations give out a large margin of the grant money that goes into ed research, creating what some see as a monopoly the information.  The Gates Foundation specifically was implicated in a scandal in 2008 for their role in “stifling a diversity of views” in malaria research, a tactic which we can clearly see in operation with their education work.  If you still need more, see Gate’s small-high schools program.

Still, a much stronger link to any proved agenda between corporations and Teach For America is needed for her argument to be taken seriously.

Here, is an extensive list of corporations that donate to TFA.  These are organizations that profit off of existing inequalities.  If TFA was truly “revolutionary”—which by its true definition means altering the existing relations of power—as it claims to be, then why would companies like Monsanto, Enron, Exxon Mobile and Goldman Sachs donate to it?  They give to it because TFA is a neo-liberal project and therefore presents no threat to their bottom lines and in no way destabilizes existing power dynamics.

TFA pushes a particular vision of ed reform on its recruits, which would explain why the majority of them who stay in education lean toward a particular politics.  These ideas, summarized as “choice, competition, deregulation, accountability, data-based decision-making, charter schools, high-stakes standardized testing for students, merit pay for teachers whose students improve their test scores, firing teachers and closing schools when scores don’t rise adequately, and longitudinal data collection on the performance of every student and teacher,” are shared by TFA and by corporations.  Corporations are embracing these strategies because they reproduce the existing system of meritocracy.

Those alumni of the program that are critical of above reforms are often critical of TFA as well, seeing how it clearly contributes to the broader neo-liberal effort.  On TFA’s blog Wendy Kopp writes, “you will see from these posts that there is no official TFA line or monolithic view.”  She cites many of the dissenting TFA alum as evidence of this diversity of ideas within their alumni base. However a quick look at the list of speakers at past TFA summits reveals the tacit political lean of the program, with leaders of organizations like The New Teacher Project and KIPP having been featured in recent years.

Finally, Griswold’s comments on Teach For America’s training is concerning. Griswold insinuates that TFA corps members do not receive enough training to be effective teachers. Yet, principals and school leaders are overwhelmingly pleased with their decision to hire TFA corps members and continue to do so.

Source on this?  Even if this was true, the reasons why would be questionable. First, TFA corps members are often a cheaper alternative to unionized career educators and are an attractive option for districts facing budget cuts.  This economic reality then could be the origin of some of this sentiment.  Second, relying on the subjective level of pleasure from “principals and school leaders” is problematic.  Many of the schools that invite TFA recruits are operated by TFA alumni and aligned organizations and are predisposed to think positively of TFA recruits.  TFA prides themselve as an organization that produces “leaders” in educational transformation and has specific programs designed for alum to reach positions where they can “make an even greater impact.”  These programs have been effective at saturating many urban districts with leadership staff that’s dominated with TFA recruits—a phenomenon I encountered at DC Public Schools.

And, to be sure, principal and school leader satisfaction are not an adequate measure of success for teacher quality and performance.  The most comprehensive, peer-reviewed study revealed that students of TFA recruits performed worse than those of their traditionally certified counterparts.  While student test scores are an imperfect measure of student learning, the long-touted line about the superiority of TFA recruits has shown to be inconsistent with the data.

While I have not seen any peer-reviewed data that compared the student satisfaction of TFA and traditionally certified teachers, Rachel Smith, a student of TFA teachers, expresses her experiences in this poem.

A couple of stanzas:

“Only see them for 2 years because we’re just a

stepping stone so they can get to their

prep schools…

It’s time we refute these self-proclaimed saviors and

put our faith into the true educators…

and not the one’s trying to do the black community

a couple favors.”

Griswold then quotes corps members who state that they were “learning on [their students]” and who felt that conversations around race were “superficial” and “offered little insight to corps members of color.” I — and many within Teach For America — will point out the need for better diversity training. However, it seems that Teach For America is doing more to correct for racism in education that traditional teaching routes. In 2011 only 17 percent of the U.S. teaching force were people of color. This matches with only 12 percent of traditionally prepared teachers being people of color. In contrast, 38 percent of Teach For America’s corps was made up of people of color. More work can be done to increase diversity in the teaching force and create a better environment for children. However, TFA is taking an active role in the issue by recruiting people of color into the teaching force.

The suggestion that TFA is beneficial for communities of color is problematic in many ways.  First, I will address the point I raised in my article on how TFA inadequately equips its recruits—of all ethnic identities—to teach without reifying racial hierarchies.  Historically, education has played a central role in ensuring that certain racial groups are oppressed and given limited access to positions of power.  Theories of literacy acquisition, histories, and methods of discipline have been designed, however unintentionally, to limit the sense of agency of certain racial groups in order to maintain status of others.  The decision to correct a student’s grammar, the wording used when posing a question, the manner in which students are assessed—these are all highly-value laden processes, each of which has been used historically as a tool of racial oppression (Read anything by Lisa Delpit.)  A meaningful engagement with this history and with the literature on the methods that are helping students of color succeed is vital for all teachers who refuse to be participants in deepening racial domination.  Tang recognizes TFA needs “better diversity training,” however I do not believe it is possible to accommodate for this sort of education unless TFA fundamentally changes its model and allows for more time dedicated to teacher preparation.

Second, Tang suggests that given that TFA gets a higher number of people of color into the teaching profession that its contributing to the much needed diversification of the teaching workforce.  However, studies have shown that, when it comes to achieving a representative teaching workforce, retention, not recruitment, is the problem.

Richard Ingersoll, a national expert on teacher workforce issues, stated, “There’s been a victory for recruitment but not a victory for retention. If we want to solve this minority teaching shortage that’s been long discussed, then there’s going to have to be more focus on retention. We’re hiring more minority teachers but also losing more of them. It’s like a leaky bucket.”

Studies reveal that teachers of color cite poor working conditions in urban schools as a central reason for leaving the profession, an issue that TFA would likely write off as “an excuse.”  Additionally, “they want more influence over school direction and more autonomy in the classroom to teach what works.”  This process is inhibited by the use of standardized tests, the increasing power of central office staff, and the move to nationalize educational standards with the Common Core—all policies that are championed by those in the ed “reform” movement that TFA is a part of.

TFA is not an organization whose mission is develop teachers of color in the communities in which they originated.  These organizations exist, and many argue that TFA, by taking a large share of federal and state funds and exploiting special relationships with district policy makers, creates many hurdles to their mission.

An excerpt from an article on this issue gives an example of how this works:

“Grow Your Own Teachers, which helps parents of color become certified to teach in their communities, mobilizes in Springfield every year for state funds—which in 2013 were decreased 60 percent as part of $128 million in across-the-board higher-education cuts. Grow Your Own has also suffered because of TFA’s clout. In 2010, TFA–Chicago director Josh Anderson pushed Illinois’s P-20 Council, an advisory body on education policy, to raise the passing score for the state’s teacher certification test; as a result, fewer blacks and Latinos, who make up most of Grow Your Own’s constituency, have passed.

My goal in replying to Griswold is not to convince anyone to apply to Teach For America. Rather, I think facts are important — maybe it’s the data thing — as people form their views on TFA.

My goal in replying to Tang is not to discourage him from pushing his insider perspective on others.  Rather, I think looking beyond the sanctioned TFA slant is important–maybe it’s a data thing–as people form their views on TFA.