Teach for America’s Mission to Displace Rank-and-File Educators in Chicago

Why are thousands of experienced educators being replaced by new college graduates?

Kenzo Shibata

In the wake of mass teacher layoffs, Teach for America plans to send hundreds more college graduates into classrooms in Chicago. (Meghan Carnavalet / Flickr / Creative Commons)

First appeared at Jacobin.

TFA is a self-perpetuating organization. Teach for two years, burn out, go to law school, become a policy maker, make policies that expand TFA.

Teach for Amer­i­ca has come under heavy scruti­ny in recent months. The orga­ni­za­tion was imag­ined over twen­ty years ago by Prince­ton under­grad­u­ate Wendy Kopp to com­bat the teacher short­age in urban and rur­al com­mu­ni­ties. TFA was to bring recent grad­u­ates from elite uni­ver­si­ties to teach in needy schools.

The idea was pret­ty sim­ple. TFA was not bet­ter for stu­dents; it was bet­ter than noth­ing. Pro­vid­ing staff in these schools alle­vi­at­ed over­crowd­ing and research shows that class size does mat­ter in a child’s education.

Twen­ty years lat­er, school dis­tricts are fir­ing huge swaths of edu­ca­tors due to bud­get cuts. These ded­i­cat­ed teach­ers lose their jobs through no fault of their own, but find them­selves com­pet­ing for a dwin­dling num­ber of open teach­ing slots. One would think that at this point, TFA is no longer nec­es­sary. We have a sur­plus of teach­ers and until politi­cians make edu­ca­tion a pri­or­i­ty and fund more teach­ing posi­tions, this trend will continue.

Yet in Chica­go

[T]he dis­trict has com­mit­ted to more than dou­bling its invest­ment in the TFA pro­gram that trains col­lege grad­u­ates for five weeks then sends them into schools for two years at a time. The Board of Edu­ca­tion vot­ed to increase its pay­ment to TFA from $600,000 to near­ly $1.6 mil­lion, and to add up to 325 new TFA recruits to CPS class­rooms, in addi­tion to 270 sec­ond year teacher interns.”

This infor­ma­tion was revealed after Chica­go Pub­lic Schools announced lay­offs of over 3,000 school per­son­nel due to bud­get cuts.

Why would CPS throw more mon­ey into recruit­ing recent col­lege grad­u­ates with five weeks of train­ing and no teach­ing cer­tifi­cates into the dis­trict when it lets go of high­ly-qual­i­fied, cer­ti­fied, vet­er­an teachers?

I checked out TFA’s web­site. Its mis­sion state­ment is far more grandiose than its orig­i­nal call to staff schools where chron­ic teacher short­ages occur.” TFA’s mis­sion is now to pro­vide excel­lent edu­ca­tion for kids in low-income com­mu­ni­ties” by recruit­ing a diverse group of lead­ers with a record of achieve­ment” who receive inten­sive train­ing.” After their two-year teach­ing com­mit­ment, these recruits work at every lev­el of edu­ca­tion, pol­i­cy and oth­er pro­fes­sions, to ensure that all chil­dren can receive an excel­lent education.”

These are a lot of lofty plat­i­tudes for an orga­ni­za­tion that was built with the sim­ple, mea­sur­able, and tem­po­rary mis­sion of pro­vid­ing bod­ies to class­rooms that need­ed them. Chica­go had a diverse teach­ing force until the mid-nineties when school clos­ings and turn­arounds” tar­get­ed schools in black neigh­bor­hoods. Chica­go has suf­fered a dras­tic decrease in the num­ber of teach­ers of col­or. It’s disin­gen­u­ous for TFA to claim its recruits have a record of achieve­ment” when they have no teach­ing record and just five weeks of train­ing before being placed in a class­room. Many of the teach­ers recent­ly laid off by CPS have won teach­ing awards and have long sto­ried careers in the dis­trict. To achieve TFA’s first three points, CPS could re-hire the teach­ers it laid off instead of replac­ing 325 of them with TFA recruits.

TFA’s last point about work­ing the pol­i­cy are­na seems to be what Teach for Amer­i­ca is real­ly good at.

James Cer­son­sky at the Amer­i­can Prospect explains the TFA polit­i­cal program,

Since its found­ing, TFA has amassed some 28,000 alum­ni. Two have made Time’s Most Influ­en­tial” list: its Chief Exec­u­tive Offi­cer and founder, Wendy Kopp, and for­mer Wash­ing­ton, D.C., schools chan­cel­lor and Stu­dents­First founder Michelle Rhee. Oth­ers have gained promi­nence as the lead­ers of mas­sive char­ter oper­a­tions, like KIPP Schools and New Schools for New Orleans. And TFA alums are cur­rent­ly the heads of pub­lic schools in Newark, D.C., and Tennessee.

What about the oth­er 27,000-some-odd peo­ple? That’s where Lead­er­ship for Edu­ca­tion­al Equi­ty, or LEE, comes in. LEE was found­ed in 2007 as a 501©4 spin-off of Teach for Amer­i­ca to pro­vide resources, train­ing, and net­work­ing for alum­ni who are inter­est­ed in elect­ed office or oth­er extracur­ric­u­lar lead­er­ship posi­tions. Its goals are ambi­tious: by 2015, as its stan­dard job post­ing reads, it hopes to have 250 of its mem­bers in elect­ed office, 300 in pol­i­cy or advo­ca­cy lead­er­ship roles, and 1,000 in active’ pipelines for pub­lic lead­er­ship.” If all goes as planned, LEE could shift con­trol over Amer­i­can edu­ca­tion reform to a spe­cif­ic group of sprite­ly col­lege grads-turned-politi­cians with a very spe­cif­ic politics.

TFA is a self-per­pet­u­at­ing orga­ni­za­tion. Teach for two years, burn out, go to law school, become a pol­i­cy mak­er, make poli­cies that expand TFA.

The increase in Chica­go TFA recruits on the heels of a mass fir­ing is bad optics for TFA, as the orga­ni­za­tion is well known for its effec­tive mar­ket­ing team (who have had way more than five weeks of training).

TFA must have tak­en Chica­go May­or Rahm Emanuel’s advice and didn’t let the lay­off cri­sis go to waste.” With activists and media focus­ing on school clos­ings and mass fir­ings, TFA could qui­et­ly come in and increase its mar­ket share in Chicago’s schools.

This sub­terfuge is nec­es­sary in the cur­rent cri­sis that is plagu­ing TFA. There is a move­ment grow­ing among past TFA recruits orga­niz­ing against the groups’ role in cor­po­ra­tiz­ing pub­lic schools.

Valerie Strauss at Wash­ing­ton Post explains:

In recent years, for­mer TFA corps mem­bers have been increas­ing­ly speak­ing up about prob­lems with the pro­gram. In this post, for exam­ple, one ex-TFAer argues that it is time for the orga­ni­za­tion to fold; in this one, an ex-TFA corps mem­ber about his lack of prepa­ra­tion for trou­bled stu­dents; and here a pro­fes­sor explains why TFA can’t recruit in his classroom.

TFA is in cri­sis mode. With the orga­ni­za­tion los­ing true believ­ers with­in its rank-and-file, it dou­bled down on recruit­ment and dou­bled down on mar­ket­ing. It’s just a shame that none of this has any­thing to do with improv­ing teach­ing and learning.

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Ken­zo Shi­ba­ta is the social media coor­di­na­tor for Chica­go Teach­ers Union and a found­ing mem­ber of CORE-The Cau­cus of Rank-and-File Edu­ca­tors. He is a for­mer class­room teacher who recent­ly received a mas­ters in Pub­lic Pol­i­cy from North­west­ern University.
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