Teach For America launched a quarter-century ago with a mission to fill a critical teacher shortage, but critics contend it has drifted far from those origins.
Perhaps the best illustration of this mission creep is in the organization’s own priorities, which it published after President-Elect Donald Trump last month named charter school advocate Betsy DeVos as his choice to run the Department of Education. Those policies, “core to our mission,” include protecting so-called “DREAMers” — children who came to America when their parents immigrated illegally — from deportation.
“You could say they’re more into frou-frou, not academic.”
The group also calls for ending the “school-to-prison pipeline,” creating “culturally responsive teaching,” and providing “safe classrooms” for Muslim, LGBT, and disabled students and teachers. The notion of “safe classrooms” for LGBT students includes support for radical transgender bathroom provisions.
Those priorities are sure to roil social conservatives, particularly since federal taxpayers contributed almost $38.2 million to the outfit in 2015, about 12 percent of its $318 million in revenue. A host of state governments also contribute tax dollars to the organization. But critics contend that even people who agree with those goals should find it perplexing that they would occupy a position at the center of an organization dedicated to improving American education.
“You could say they’re more into frou-frou, not academic,” said Betty Peters, a member of the Alabama Board of Education. “I just don’t know why it’s in the state budget. I never saw anyone say it made a difference in places where they couldn’t get good teachers.”
And that was the original premise. Teach For America would recruit smart college students with an interest in public service, provide them with training and then set them loose in some of America’s worst schools — underperforming urban schools and rural areas that traditionally have had trouble attracting teachers.
But T. Jameson Brewer, a Teach For America alum who co-edited a book on the nonprofit organization, said the group has shifted its rationale as economic conditions forced teacher layoffs across the country.
“Particularly in the last 10 years, it shifted away from teacher shortage to a message of, ‘We produce better teachers,'” he said. “They were forced to change their message.”
He said the idea that the 18 hours of student teaching that participants receive can produce better teachers than professionals who spend years in a traditional education program is “kind of a bold claim.”
Danielle Montoya, a Teach For America spokeswoman, defended its educational goals. She said those priorities include items directly related to education, such as expanding access to “high-value” colleges for low-income students, preserving “high expectations and swift interventions for schools” under the Every Student Succeeds Act, and using evidence and data to drive instruction and teacher development.
“That part is definitely in there,” she said.
But Montoya said the cultural issues were important, too.
“We believe that every child should feel safe … That’s critically important,” she said. “We stand by the diversity of students and teachers. It would be hard to deliver a quality education … if they’re not feeling safe.”
But Peters said the program has been hit by high turnover, which undermines education. She said a focus on social activism diverts attention from fundamentals that should be the core mission.
“The most important thing for young kids is reading, writing, and arithmetic. It still is,” she said. “You see what happens when we don’t teach that. We’re still teaching it in college.”
Brewer, whose book is called “Teach For America Counter Narratives: Speak Up and Speak Out,” said the lineup of liberal social issues fits perfectly with Teach For America’s recruiting goals. He said the organization wants progressive recruits who will accept its pedagogical methods.
“It’s a perfect case study in recruiting and marketing. They really know how to market themselves,” he said. “They want people who will buy into the notion that education is the new civil rights issue.”
Brewer said Teach For America promotes the “idea you can somehow fix society’s problems by fixing teachers.” He said participants tend to view the teaching gig as a short-term job before they move on to other endeavors to swiftly move up the ranks of school leadership positions. He said the organization’s philosophy is encapsulated in a 2011 interview founder Wendy Kopp gave to a Seattle radio station: “We’re a leadership development organization, not a teaching organization.”
Brewer said the approach should be to create effective, career teachers who can build up years of experience. He said the short training program is an inadequate substitute for the development provided to aspiring teachers in full-fledged education schools.
“We would never accept ‘Doctors for America,'” he said.
One area in which Teach For America unquestionably has succeeded is growth. From a start of 500 teachers, reaching 36,000 in five states during the 1990-’91 school year, the program has mushroomed into a behemoth that included more than 50,000 teachers in 36 states and the District of Columbia in the 2015-’16 school year. Teach For America has touched more than 10 million students.
The growth has accelerated and continued at breakneck speed even as the Great Recession triggered layoffs. Brewer said that the Chicago school system laid off 2,000 teachers from 2010 to 2012 even as it doubled the number of Teach For America teachers working in its schools.
Brewer, who in January will begin a job as an education professor at the University of North Georgia, has the perspective of someone who attended both a traditional education school and went through Teach For America. He said he became a certified teacher in December 2007 and found himself shut out of a job by a statewide teacher hiring freeze in Georgia. So, he said, he applied to Teach For America out of desperation and worked there for two years.
He said he thinks he would have had a far different experience if he had skipped education school and gone straight to Teach For America without formal teacher training.
“Education for me would have been a two-year thing, and I would have been done with it and gone on to law school or medical school like so many do,” he said.