The world of education has changed since I was a New York City corps member in 2005. As reforms, driven by Race to the Top and other events, have taken hold in districts across the country, opposition and push-back have increased dramatically – both in their frequency and in their vitriol. And far too often, the target of these critiques has been Teach For America, which also means its corps members and alums. The structure of these arguments, and the noise-machine networks that make them, have been a subject of long reflection, primarily because they stand in such contrast to my own experience with Teach For America – one that supported me, taught me to teach, was diverse and gave me a group of lifelong friends with deep values and belief in the inherent power and brilliance of all children.
So I keep asking and answering the same things to myself:
1. Why is Teach For America in the crosshairs?
One of the reasons that I’m still in love with the organization, ten years after I first walked through the dining hall of the Philadelphia summer institute, is that Teach For America has always been dedicated to learning, reflection and improvement.
Whether the expansion of outcomes corps members work towards with their students, an evolving focus on collaboration with families and communities, or more recent work to make sure our teaching and training is more culturally responsive, it’s clear that Teach For America has been working with alums and others to improve its program.
But the loudest critiques of late emerged without the organization’s improvement in mind; rather, they ask the question: “should Teach for America have a right to exist?” And they soundly answer: no.
What I’ve come to realize, however, is that these critics – from Diane Ravitch and her Network for Public Education, the Save Our Schools coalition and any other acronym of the week, along with a small but vocal group of hyper-critical alumni (many of whom are professors of education who fill their Vitae with critiques of TFA) – have (self-servingly and smartly) determined that Teach For America is too important to “change” to be left alive. It is, in great measure, the human capital pipeline for much of education reform, and so the critics perceive it to be Enemy Number One. These individuals and networks believe that by creating public dissonance over TFA, they can wreck its popularity in communities and on college campuses and, thusly, starve the hiring pools for everything from legislative aids to high-performing charter school teaching staffs.
Their effort has very little to do with improving Teach For America – it’s dedicated to silencing the voices of anyone with an opposing worldview.
2. Why hasn’t Teach For America come out swinging?
I’ve had my share of both appreciation and doubt over Teach For America’s response to the constant, organized attacks. Far too often, Teach For America has positioned itself as the adult in the room, working to rise above the noise, sharing the positive work that corps members and alumni are doing each and every day, while correcting the record when mistruths are propagated. They’re also always trying to tease out what feedback is useful to improve the program even from the most vociferous detractors.
It simply isn’t within the realm of Teach For America’s core values to call out the rampant hypocrisy, intellectual laziness and disingenuous intentions of its most prominent critics. Yet at the same time, efforts to collaborate and converse with these individuals have fallen flat – and why wouldn’t they, given that many of the prominent attackers won’t be satisfied until Teach For America no longer exists?
Quite simply, as alumni, we have to do more – and have to do what Teach For America as an entity cannot. And that’s why, when Derrell Bradford came to me with the idea for Corps Knowledge, I immediately signed up. There’s been a blank slate for nonsense over the past few years, and it’s time to even the scales.
3. Why haven’t alums fought back against these attacks in an organized way, before now?
The critics of Teach For America are far more vocal than they are numerous – and they’re certainly dwarfed by the number of the organization’s alumni who had a positive experience and still work in classrooms, in education, or in partnership with low-income communities. Yet when taking a look at a snapshot of school board/community meetings, college campuses and the battlefields of Twitter that narrative doesn’t emerge, largely because Teach For America’s alumni are often absent from those spaces. And that begs the question as to why – and it’s a question I’ve been asking of alums over the course of the past month. Here’s what I’ve learned:
- We’re busy people who are working ridiculously hard on behalf of kids. Several alums I’ve spoken with shared that the prospect of engaging in a twitter war after a full day in the classroom or the courthouse triggered feelings of exhaustion.
- There’s a fear of being personally attacked. Other alums expressed that they were eager to engage with our critics and share how the attacks aren’t reflective of their own experience, but have seen others called out, challenged and attacked themselves by the relentless onslaught of the defenders of the status quo. I understand this – I saw one alum who spoke up attacked for their college writing, another for a LinkedIn profile that wasn’t updated, another for winning a beauty pageant.
- There’s a lack of awareness of the depth or impact the attacks are having, or a perception that Teach For America’s staff will take care of it.
My hope for Corps Knowledge is that we – collectively – will be able to address these concerns and change the debate. Derrell, myself and our advisory board are going to seek to inform, providing you with an awareness of the attacks that are taking place, and situating them within broader context. We’re going to seek to inspire (or enrage) by providing you with a network of likeminded alums, each with their own unique take on the education landscape. And we’re going to seek to drive you to strategic action – to aid, alongside the other alums taking part in this group, our efforts to fight back against the critics and support the work you have done and continue to do.
I hope you’re as eager as we are to take part.
Throughout this week, we’re going to feature some alumni voices who will be presenting snapshots of various districts and communities across the country, sharing their take on the education landscape. We’ll also have several open forums for discussion, and the first of our “calls to action” – stay tuned.
This post was written by NYCAN Deputy Director, Ned Stanley. He writes from San Francisco.