In a recent op-ed for the Harvard Crimson, Sandra Korn asked fellow students to reconsider Teach for America and question its pernicious effects on the public school system. Korn's main concerns include TFA's ties to unaccountable charter schools, its role in the high-stakes testing obsession, and its replacement of experienced unionized teachers with Ivy League temp workers (80 percent of recruits quit after three years). These are sound arguments, and I agree with her. But I think it is also important to call out Teach for America for its fundamental missionary ideology, which appears to be premised on the assumption that the lower educational outcomes of poor communities stem from deficient academic character—that is from a lack of motivation on the part of students and teachers alike—rather than the larger social structures that constrict them. Because of this condescending attitude, it is not enough for students to individually reconsider TFA. We as a student body must demand it leave campus.
Let's keep one thing in mind when debating any education reform efforts: The fundamental problem is poverty. In fact, the recently published results of the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment indicate that U.S. public school students actually outperform the rest of the world's top scoring nations (Finland, Canada, etc.) when controlling for poverty. In affluent U.S. schools—in which less than 10 percent of the student population qualifies for free and reduced meal programs—we score 551 on the PISA, 15 points higher than Finland, despite its extremely low overall poverty rate of 3.4 percent. Thus, the problem for groups really interested in equalizing education outcomes should be our country's rising poverty rates. The problem is not the moral character of lazy teachers and uninspired students, but rather the cycles of poverty that circumscribe their opportunities before they have even stepped into the classroom.
Instead of confronting the real issue, TFA accepts the status quo. In insisting that the sheer innovation and heroic passion of its corps members will transcend these larger factors of poverty, TFA denigrates those that live under the crushing realities of inequality. This conformist approach explains its dizzying array of corporate donors, enthusiastic to sponsor a narrative that refuses to implicate the unfair social structures from which they profit. Since when were Bank of America and Monsanto interested in "leveling the playing field"?
In other words, TFA is yet another painfully naïve iteration of the American Dream: If corps members inspire their students to just work really hard, they'll succeed. Despite the fact that after two decades of this character-based approach, many studies have shown that TFA deliberately exaggerates its recruits' results, which are actually significantly lower in reading and mathematics than those attained by credentialed beginning teachers.
This version of the American Dream is a fantasy propagated by TFA onto low-income school districts. Every year, a flood of Ivy League recruits joins the "corps" excited to conquer the mysterious problems of the inner city—a foreign land the majority of them have never interacted with outside of their high school "service requirements." After five weeks of training with their elite peers and instructors alone, they embark on a two- to three-year adventure in which they hope to transform the lives of urban children, who often make for poignant TFA promos. Implicit in their every interaction is an uncomfortable power dynamic. Like the missionaries before them, TFA trainees have come to free students from their lives of poverty with their inherent (albeit unproven) pedagogical superiority.
Yet by and large, the students and parents that TFA purports to be helping have not asked for their longtime community teachers to be replaced, nor for their public schools to be shut down and replaced with TFA-staffed charter schools. Nowhere was this more vehemently demonstrated than in Chicago, where street protests erupted in response to Mayor Rahm Emmanuel's massive school closings and his decision to lay off 850 teachers and staff for 350 unprepared TFA corps members. Despite such stinging rejections, TFA has the gall to presume its recruits can transform communities of which they have never been a part.
As students at one of the wealthiest, most inaccessible universities in the world, we do have a place in this struggle. But that place is not in having a résumé-padding "eye-opening" experience at the expense of kids who need real teachers. It is our responsibility to stop. Stop pretending that these students just need a really passionate math teacher. Stop ignoring the elephant in the room: poverty. Stop speaking for people we have no right to speak for.
As long as TFA persists in doing this, we cannot tolerate its presence on our campus. Superman is not coming. It's time for us as students to make sure that Teach for America flies away for good.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore. He is an organizer for Student Worker Solidarity.
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