In a recently published The Harvard Crimson op-ed entitled “Don’t Teach For America,” Harvard University senior Sandra Korn voiced her criticisms of the Teach For America (TFA) program, stating that “TFA is working directly against the interests of teachers, students, and communities alike” and has “positioned itself as an ethical alternative to Wall Street for college seniors looking for a short-term commitment.” We’ve heard such criticisms numerous times when discussing TFA at the 5Cs, but we notice that these comments, like those in The Harvard Crimson op-ed, often reflect a certain level of privilege and unfamiliarity with the realities facing schools in under-served communities. Too often, these criticisms come from individuals who have not taken the time to truly reflect on the implications of being involved with TFA, mostly because they have never been forced to do so. It’s one thing to believe that TFA is imperfect and to criticize it from the sidelines, but an entirely different thing to work to make it, and educational access, better.
Unsurprisingly, such a debate is not only present in Cambridge and in Claremont, but on college campuses across the country. The Cornell Daily Sun recently ran a piece by senior Sam Kuhn, arguing that if we focus only on the “large structural problems which have stumped policymakers, educators, and communities for decades” then the progress we seek to make is necessarily impossible. Yes, TFA is problematic in many ways and its work is messy at times, but it is taking direct action to broaden opportunities for students—action that critiquing alone cannot accomplish. It is when coupled with direct action that critiques are important. In the last few months alone, successful campaigns have urged the organization to focus on cultural competency training, improve teacher coaching, and develop queer-friendly messaging.
Many of TFA’s critics claim that the program is destroying public education, but this idea ignores that we are dealing with a system of public education that was designed to, and continues to, limit opportunities and outcomes for poor people and people of color. Wealthy communities across the country have already effectively privatized neighborhood schools by allowing them to rely on funding from property taxes and booster clubs—organizations that funnel donations from the well-off citizenry into the predominantly white, suburban schools that educate their children.
Furthermore, these critics say that TFA inadequately prepares its teachers to meet the demands of the classroom. However, this line of criticism ignores the larger picture of inadequacy in all teacher-training programs. TFA Institute may be too short or too sink-or-swim, but many traditional teacher training programs can be criticized for their lack of rigor, their emphasis on theory instead of practice, and their high tuition cost compared to eventual compensation. With its position in the critical spotlight, TFA has as much, if not more, of a chance to really respond to the criticisms of teacher training in general and improve it.
We unpack these criticisms not to delegitimize them, but instead to show that there are so many issues affecting education in the United States that there is no pure way with which we can battle the systems of power and inequality which uphold society’s status quo. Ignoring our education system’s structural issues is a grave mistake, but allowing them to bar all action is certainly just as ineffective and reflects the privilege of being able to do so.
Our purpose is not to convince you that TFA has all the answers, that you are the right person to apply, or even that you should like TFA. Instead, it is to challenge you to consider whose experiences inform your critiques and opinions of Teach For America, and what steps you are taking to address your critiques of TFA and today’s educational landscape.
Ben Shand PO ’14 and Tara Miller PO ’14 are Teach For America campus representatives and will be members of the TFA Corps starting next year.