Opinion: Education in free fall

ASU is too close with Teach for America

Teach For America, in less than 30 years, has risen to become, perhaps, the most influential organization in education. However, for over a decade, education researchers at ASU have pointed to the pernicious nature of the organization's approach to education. 

In 2017, 50 Arizona State University students joined Teach For America, the third most of any university in the United States, a fact that ASU President Michael Crow touted on his Twitter account. At an event held at the Arizona Capitol building honoring ASU students joining the program, Cindy Parnell, a senior administrator said, "At ASU, we are especially proud of our partnership with TFA and our shared commitment to ensuring broad access to education and opportunity for all."

The marketing of Teach For America is also echoed in ASU's own marketing, which shares much of the same lingo. For example, a page on ASU's website, titled “Changemaker Central” bears a striking resemblance to the front page of the Teach for America website, which also has a slide with the phrase "Changemakers start here." Other similar instances can be found — terms such as “social entrepreneurship,” “service,” “leadership,” “innovation,” etc. — all of which seem to have a political dimension.

Recruits to the organization are routinely given profiles in ASU Now, the University’s official news service. Each profile in turn pays homage to the generosity of individual ASU students in their decision to grace what is portrayed as the ailing teaching profession.

The founder of Teach for America, Wendy Kopp, has delivered two prestigious speeches at ASU: She took part in the University’s Frank Rhodes lecture series in 2011 and gave the commencement address to the University’s class of 2016, where she received an honorary "Doctor of Humane Letters."

In the latter address, Kopp said, “(t)his institution is a dear friend to Teach for America … and I’m thrilled that graduates from the Arizona State community make up one of the largest groups of Teach for America teachers today.”

Teach for America was founded by Kopp in 1989 after laying out the blueprint for the organization in her 1989 Princeton undergraduate thesis. The premise underlying this blueprint is that of service and social activism in pursuit of education equity — specifically, academically successful college graduates are recruited to spend two years teaching in under-performing schools in both urban and rural areas. 

A model of social change rooted in individual service and social activism is the basic approach to education reform, which Kopp adopted when she conceived Teach for America. But it would be a grave mistake to think that Teach for America is only involved with volunteer work.

Teach for America and its alumni are startlingly influential in education at large. For instance, the infamous charter-school advocate and education policy “savant” Michelle Rhee is a TFA alumna. Kipp Schools, the largest charter school operator in the United States with 212 school locations, was founded by two TFA alumni.

Staff in both the Obama and Trump Departments of Education claim alumni status, a fact that President Obama discussed in a welcome video shown at TFA's 25th anniversary event. Republican Arizona Governor Doug Ducey is a former regional board member at Teach for America, and Reginald Bolding, a Democrat and representative for the 27th Legislative District of the Arizona House of Representatives, is an alumnus. 

In addition to its affiliations with Arizona State University and the country’s top politicians, Teach for America draws tens of millions of dollars in donations from some of the largest corporations. Among these are the Walton Family Foundation, the ExxonMobil Foundation and the Monsanto Fund. 

Several prominent Arizona companies are also featured on the list: the Arizona Diamondbacks, The Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Suns. In 2010, with the infusion of an $18 million donation from billionaire philanthropist T. Denny Sanford, ASU launched the Sanford Education Project in partnership with Teach for America. 

Teach for America is one of, if not the most, influential organizations in education policy in the United States. Given all of the donor money from billion-dollar corporations, prestigious awards doled out, speeches given by its members, ties to powerful politicians such as Doug Ducey and influence within educational institutions — within ASU in fact — it should be obvious that the approach to education proffered by the organization has been wildly successful, right?

Not quite. 

Dr. David C. Berliner, a Regents’ Professor Emeritus at ASU, co-authored a paper highly critical of TFA in 2002. He was Dean of the Mary Lou Fulton College of Education (now the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College) and retired later that same year. When I interviewed him on Thursday, Aug. 30, he said that during his tenure as Dean, he “didn’t have any relationship (with TFA)," and "didn’t want one.” By 2016, the Dean of the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers’ College was presenting Teach for America founder, Wendy Kopp, with an honorary degree.

Researchers with the Education Policy Analysis Archives, an international academic research journal published by Arizona State University, have been putting out research critical of Teach for America and the broader education reform movement for over a decade. For instance, in 2002, EPAA published a paper by Professor Berliner and fellow researcher Ildiko Laczko-Kerr stating that “there is no difference between the performance of new teachers from Teach for America and that of all other under-certified teachers. On all tests, and in both years, the certified teachers out-performed the under-certified novice teachers from Teach for America." 

Beyond the training that Teach for America instructors don’t receive in preparation for their teaching, is the training they don’t receive if they leave the profession. Julian Vasquez Heilig, a contributor to EPAA and vocal critic of Teach for America, found in a 2010 survey of studies on Teach for America's turnover rate, that “the empirical literature consistently finds a rate of attrition for TFA teachers of 80 percent or more by the fourth year of teaching,” which is much higher than the rate for traditionally certified teachers. The implication is that Teach for America participants typically do not have the chance to improve their professional skills beyond the minimal training they receive.

“I think we made a mistake when we let (Teach for America) on campus,” Professor Berliner told me in an interview. “It’s saying ‘We don’t value our own teacher program.’”

Teach for America also frames its programs as a matter of promoting racial equality, but according to another study published in the EPAA, its record on matters of equality in the teaching profession has been dismal as well. Terrenda White, author of a 2016 paper on TFA’s approach to diversity, noted that this approach was internally contradictory.

Although TFA corps members are now more diverse than they were before, because they teach in schools that are overwhelmingly black and de facto segregated, they are still unrepresentative of the schools they teach in. Terrenda White notes that while Teach for America has responded to past criticism of its predominantly white and middle class teaching corps by increasing the level of diversity represented in the organization, the policies pushed by TFA donors and alumni undermine diversity in schools overall by pushing out black and Latinx teachers already in the profession.

A tension between the purported mission to improve education access and equity and the policies promoted by Teach For America alumni is a common theme within this organization. This tension is structural.

As founder, Wendy Kopp is quoted in an April 15, 2014 piece in The Nation: "We’re a leadership development organization, not a teaching organization." This statement reflects the more accurate reading of TFA's real approach to education.

This approach is fundamentally about technical and personnel changes (who runs the schools and how they are run), crucially neglecting the context within which schools operate. TFA would have us believe solutions to educational inequality will emanate from the individual, regardless of whether their students live in poverty, funding gets slashed or a disaster strikes.

Particularly illuminating is the example of New Orleans, where, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of predominantly black teachers were fired, and the city’s public schools were mostly replaced with charter schools run by private operators extensively linked to TFA and lacking democratic oversight from a school board. 

According to another EPAA study published in 2016 by T. Jameson Brewer and his colleagues, the charter schools were staffed disproportionately by TFA corps members as teachers, on the one hand, and TFA alumni as operators and various administrators on the other. 

Here in Arizona, the TFA-friendly governor, Doug Ducey, has been no friend to public education. According to the Phoenix New Times, in 2015 Ducey submitted a budget that, while slashing school budgets by a net total of about $100 million, awarded nearly $500,000 to Teach for America for administrative purposes. In a letter to the organization, 47 corps members and alumni advised the TFA not to take the money in the face of such massive cuts to public schools. 

Teach for America took the money anyway.

The authors of “Reframing Teach For America” also collected qualitative data in the form of interviews at Teach for America’s 20th Anniversary Summit. They found that “TFA frames the roots of inequality as stemming from the managerial shortcomings of public bureaucracies,” and that, despite being ostensibly non-political, “multiple panels reinforced political understandings about the causes of and solutions to educational inequality in terms of market and private sector approaches to schooling, and the types of managerial leaders needed to enact those approaches.” 

Teach for America’s extensive ties with members of the Democratic and Republican parties does not make it non-political. What it instead indicates is that both parties broadly share an approach toward education policy that affirms the centrality of school and teacher quality at the expense of socioeconomic conditions, such as poverty and systemic racism, which they either fail or refuse to address.

Given the power, prestige and influence of Teach for America, it’s hard to argue that the organization and its alumni are not the archetype of what “changemakers” and “leaders” should look like. As “social entrepreneurs,” they rake in hundreds of millions of dollars from some of the wealthiest donors in the world. But "change" in and of itself has no content. What really matters is the sort of change being pursued and how.

Of course, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with community service or philanthropy. However, the basic material premise of service as a model for change will continually produce extreme need. People in need of assistance don't have their basic needs met except through the charity of private individuals.

However, such a social order is not inevitable.

When he first began his research career, Professor Berliner primarily studied education psychology. “51 years ago … (President) Johnson gave money to a very famous sociologist, James Coleman, and Jim went out to look at whether (school) desegregation was working and how it was working, that sort of thing.”

Berliner and his colleagues had trouble accepting what Coleman had found. 

“His report said ‘schools don’t count for much. Family, community, neighborhood and cohort count for more.’”

As a result, Professor Berliner reoriented his research to study the sociological aspects of education. “Housing policy is education policy. Policing policy is education policy,” he told me. 

The notion that individuals as “leaders" will “innovate” their way out of complex and historically rooted social problems is a carefully marketed fantasy, a fantasy that ASU should stop buying into. Arizona State University and its students should instead be engaged with challenging the social systems that reproduce inequity in education and society more broadly, problems which cannot be "innovated" out of.

What is needed now more than ever is not so much leaders, and certainly not entrepreneurs, but broad-based social activism that demands substantive education reform: the end of the class-based divide and de facto segregation in American education and the transformation of the system that perpetuates them. 

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in print in State Press Magazine, vol. 19, issue 1 on Sept. 12, 2018.


Reach the reporter at bjcoope7@asu.edu and follow @bcoop_az on Twitter. 

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