TFA is Bad for America

18 Aug

By T. Ultican 8/19/2019

Teach For America (TFA) has become the billionaire financed army for privatizing public education. It is the number one source of charter school teachers and its alumni are carrying a neoliberal ideology into education leadership at all levels. TFA undermines education professionalism and exacerbates teacher turnover. Its teachers are totally unqualified to run a classroom yet their political support caused the US Congress to label them as highly qualified teachers. Big money and its political power have elevated TFA to being the nation’s most effective force driving the privatization of public education.

Defining  TFA Neoliberalism

This April, Angela M. Kraemer-Holland of DePaul University submitted her doctoral thesis in which she observed:

“TFA’s primary conception of itself is not as a teacher training organization, nor a non-university-based early entry recruitment program, but rather as a “movement” against a pressing and untenable social problem. Conclusions illuminate TFA’s efforts to shape participants’ understanding of teaching and learning—framing teaching as a temporary career—in order to create and sustain a broader movement in education and beyond that is reflective of neoliberal ideas.”

Kraemer-Holland’s conclusions echoes those of two TFA alumni working on their doctorates at Boston College, Randall Lahann and Emilie Mitescu Reagan. They co-wrote “Teach for America and the Politics of Progressive Neoliberalism” published by the Teacher Education Quarterly winter 2011. The classification of TFA as a progressive neoliberal organization is based on their definitions of these combined terms:

“Neoliberalism: Political ideology which calls for state policies that better enable entrepreneurs to compete in the free market. Policies which promote privatization, deregulation, individual choice, and the reduction of government expenditures are valued over those which increase, or promote the welfare state and government control of social and economic activity.”

“Progressivism: The idea that schooling and teacher education are crucial elements in the making of a more just society.”

Although neoliberalism is known to be a conservative ideology, within TFA there is the idea that the outcomes in education are more than just test scores and knowledge, but equity and justice as well. Lahann and Reagan write, “This space can be thought of as progressive neoliberalism.”

Whatever it is called, the faith is in the superiority of the market fundamentalism which Ruth Rosen defined as “the irrational belief that markets solve all problems.” In the book Democracy in Chains, Nancy MacLean quoted former congressman and leader of the “Contract for America” Dick Armey. He summed up the neoliberal view succinctly, “The markets are rational, the government is dumb.

Neoliberal ideology has been on the ascendancy since the 1970’s coinciding with the founding of the libertarian think tanks Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute. There is an inherent anti-democratic sentiment attached to the theory. In Democracy, Maclean provides a detailed description of the lavish spending since the 1950s by the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch promoting their neoliberal based libertarian ideology. Charles Koch founded the Cato Institute. Their stands include an ultra-conservative property rights view and an anti-public education agenda.

Undermining Professionalism in Education

In the paper “Teach For America’s Preferential Treatment: School District Contracts, Hiring Decisions, and Employment Practices”, authors T. Jameson Brewer et al address why school districts want to hire TFA teachers. Their research led to these four points:

“(1) Districts realize the long-term savings potential that comes from converting open teaching positions to positions held exclusively for TFA (or otherwise short-term, not fully credentialed teachers).”

“(2) Districts are willing to pay additional up-front costs not only for the long-term savings but in the quest for increased test scores that can result from pedagogical practices of teaching-to-the-test that characterize TFA pedagogy.”

“(3) School board leaders have bought into the rhetoric of the ‘bad’ teacher and TFA represents a political opportunity to address that perception.”

“(4) In the case of a genuine teacher shortage, cost impacts become less important than filling positions.”

“While each rationale – or a combination of them – may explain why districts continue to honor and expand MOUs[memorandums of understanding] with TFA, we suggest that it is the long-term savings potential that is the most plausible.”

In the same paper it was mentioned that TFA alumni “tend to understand educational change through managerial terms; believing that inequity is a result of resource mismanagement and a lack of accountability and that solutions lay in merit pay for teachers, increased autonomy for leadership, standardization of curriculum, and an end to collective bargaining.

An article in Phi Delta Kappan had similar observations. In Rethinking Teach For America’s leadership models researchers, Tina Trujillo and Janelle Scott, noted that TFA alumni emphasized managerial goals. From their research they reported, “Over 80% of our participants depicted the causes of inequality in technical or managerial terms.”  The education reforms posited by the TFA alumni interviewed were:

  • “Scale back unions’ collective bargaining agreements in order to increase principals’ flexibility in personnel matters.”
  • “Increase teacher and principal effectiveness through tighter accountability.”
  • “Increase principal and teacher expectations.”
  • “Tie teacher compensation to student performance.”
  • “Hire better “talent.”’
  • “Standardize curricula and assessments.”
  • “Expand technology and data use.”

Clearly these former TFA corps members had completely assimilated the destroy public education message of failing schools, inept principals and bad teachers.

Prior to taking over a classroom, TFA teachers receive just five weeks of training. Their training is test centric and employs behaviorist principles. TFA corps members study Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion.

Lemov never studied education nor taught. He became involved with the no-excuses charter movement in mid-1990s. As glowingly depicted by Elizabeth Green in Building A+ Better Teacher, Lemov observed classrooms to develop his teaching ideas.

Most trained professional educators find Lemov’s teaching theory regressive. Jennifer Berkshire published a post by Layla Treuhaft-Ali on her popular blog and podcast “Have You Heard.” Under the title “Teach Like its 1885” Layla wrote,

“As I was reading Teach Like A Champion, I observed something that shocked me. The pedagogical model espoused by Lemov is disturbingly similar to one that was established almost a century ago for the express purpose of maintaining racial hierarchy.”

Treuhaft-Ali added, “Placed in their proper racial context, the Teach Like A Champion techniques can read like a modern-day version of the *Hampton Idea,* where children of color are taught not to challenge authority under the supervision of a wealthy, white elite.”

Amber K. Kim, Ph.D. made the following observations about Teach Like A Champion:

“ TLAC strategies are not proven using empirical methodology and published in peer reviewed journals. If there are studies, what are the variables? n? p value?”

“ TLAC is for “Other people’s children” (L. Delpit). Of course some TLAC strategies are effective and even fun, but the strict adherence to TLAC as a bible for teaching is reserved for students of color and low SES [Social Economic Status].”

This year California Assemblywomen Cristina Garcia introduced a bill to end TFA hiring in the state. Garcia is a former classroom teacher and understands the importance of teaching staff stability. In an op-ed for the San Diego Union, She noted that 80% of TFA teachers are gone within three years. Coincidentally, that is the amount of classroom time researchers believe it takes for teachers to become proficient. Garcia stated,

“Third-party trainees lack crucial experience before entering a classroom, receiving only a few weeks of training and do not need to have a degree in education. For teacher-credentialing programs, hopeful educators take two years to complete their educational training and serve as a student teacher for another year before entering the classroom as its sole credentialed instructor.”

“Yes, California has struggled with a teacher shortage for decades. The answer to that shortage is not placing untrained educators in schools who leave after a two-year stint. When teachers leave after only a few years, it just exacerbates the issue. It’s a Band-Aid fix on a bullet-hole problem.”

Garcia ordered her bill to the inactive file in May.

TFA is the Billionaire Army

TFA Army

It seems like every major foundation gives to TFA. Besides Gates, Walton, Broad, Dell, Hastings, and Arnold, there is Bradley, Hall, Kaufman, DeVos, Skillman, Sackler and the list goes on. According to TFA’s 2016 tax form, the grants TFA received that year totaled more than $245 million. US taxpayer give TFA $40 million a year via the US Department of Education.

The Walton (Walmart) family has provided TFA more than $100,000,000. In 2013, their $20,000,000 grant gave $2,000 more per TFA teacher going to charter schools than for public school teachers. Annie Waldmen reporting for ProPublica observed,

“The incentives corresponded to a shift in Teach For America’s direction. Although only 7% of students go to charter schools, Teach For America sent almost 40% of its 6,736 teachers to them in 2018 — up from 34% in 2015 and 13% in 2008. In some large cities, charter schools employ the majority of TFA teachers: 54% in Houston, 58% in San Antonio and at least 70% in Los Angeles.”

To enhance the opportunities in leadership for TFA teachers, TFA created the non-profit Leadership for Education Equity (LEE). The LEE board includes Emma Bloomberg (Michael Bloomberg’s daughter); Steuart Walton (billionaire); Arthur Rock (billionaire) and Elisa Villanueva Beard (TFA CEO). LEE finances TFA members and alumni who run for political office and provides campaign training. All LEE members get at least $2,000 but members with the right attitude will also get individual donations from board members. LEE, which received $29 million in contributions and grants in 2017, helped more than 150 alumni run in local and state races in 2018, according to an internal presentation obtained by ProPublica.

A LEE example: This May when Houston ISD voted to end their contract with TFA, board member Holly Vilaseca voted to renew it. Previously, Vilaseca had been a founding TFA teacher at a KIPP charter school. Walton family members and Arthur Rock gave a total of $20,000 to her 2017 school board campaign, in addition to $6,000 from LEE.

The history of the World is replete with examples of Youth movements being used by ruthless individuals for their own purposes. Four years ago, I wrote “Is TFA a Cult.” At the time, I thought that was somewhat farcical. Today, I believe it is true. Idealistic youths are recruited, taught a neoliberal view of good governance and those that take the bait are shaped for leadership and lucrative careers.

TFA corps members and alumni are the ground forces for privatizing public education the pillar of American Democracy. TFA is bad for America.

One Response to “TFA is Bad for America”

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  1. Tom Ultican: TFA Is Bad for America | Diane Ravitch's blog - August 19, 2019

    […] TFA is Bad for America […]

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