If you’ve been following education news in the last few months, you’ve likely seen some pretty rough dialogue. While “it’s all about kids” has become the mantra of unions and those wishing to close down unions alike, it’s unclear what each of those groups actually means by it and what they’ll do about it. More importantly, as our country grows increasingly divided about just about everything, even those working on the ground to improve schools and systems are being cast as conservative, 1%-er tools (which is ironic given their vastly liberal leanings).
To add to the irony, what’s one of the the groups that’s best representing the “it’s all about kids” while being chided as a privatizing entity of corporate greed? KIPP. Check out stories and video from their recent summit which actually put their students and parents front and center. Judge for yourself.
How did we get here?
When I entered the marvelous world of education 7+ years ago as a 2005 Teach For America corps member in the South Bronx, the world looked a lot different. There were teacher shortages across the country, TFA was seen as a temporary plug (although it didn’t really see itself that way), and both the awareness of the problem and understanding of what worked were just beginning to emerge. Charter schools were still in their relative infancy, the big unions weren’t compromising on just about anything, and even “high stakes testing” wasn’t that big of a deal.
Seven years later the scene looks entirely different. Anyone who supports charters is labeled as trying to “privatize” education, we’re publishing statistically invalid test data in national newspapers, states are whole-sale reformatting tenure and deconstructing school districts, teachers are opting in to performance pay (with union support), and advocacy organizations (StudentsFirst and 50CAN among others) are the hot new thing.
Then you look at cities like New Orleans, DC, and New York (and even states like Tennessee) and have to ask if the progress they’ve made is because of the changes and “reformers”, in spite of them, or even more cynically, not really progress at all. I vote for a fourth alternative, but you’ll have to read on to get it.
While there are many organizations involved in reform, there are none quite like Teach For America (this has nothing to do with other org’s importance or impact on progress). Why? Because while many others have more laser-focused priorities (e.g. create more charter schools to serve more kids), TFA is a diversified machine that brings in a new and growing pool of talent that feeds the education ecosystem – in districts, in policy, in whatever format is best needed for each community. And it’s precisely because of that – a focus on leadership – that often puts TFA at the center of the argument in the public sphere.
What is TFA?
Recently, Kenzo Shibata wrote a piece in the HuffingtonPost entitled “Teach for America: what’s the purpose?” His conclusion: compliant, cheap labor.
Commentators went on to add to his hypothesis: TFA teachers are arrogant, elitist, under-performing, anti-blue collar “scabs” who are making the profession worse.
Soon after, a corps member, Alyssa Granacki wrote a response to Kenzo’s article. Her conclusion: TFA raises awareness about inequity, brings a diverse talent pool in to address that inequity, and has a growing number of proof points that the effort is paying off (albeit far from fixed). The commentators had fun with that one too.
My favorite response was actually a reference to another blog that shared a really balanced perspective on common critiques of TFA while still leveling some of its own on how TFA could be better.
Here’s my own opinion: we need hundreds of thousands of diverse teachers and school leaders who have the skills, conviction, and leadership to overcome the additional challenges of poverty, inspire a love of learning based on their belief that education is the road to opportunity, and has a deep understanding of and respect for the community to create partners in change.
That is ridiculously hard work, but it’s grounded in a few things that Teach For America does well and some things it should do much better. Other orgs can learn from what TFA is doing, has done, and wants to do, and vice-versa. This isn’t a 0-sum gain, and the winners and losers aren’t teachers – they’re the next generation of kids sitting in our classrooms across America today.