I Won't Say 'Don't Join Teach For America' (Yet)

In too many instances, Teach For America does more for those who join it than for the students and communities it hopes to serve.

Earlier this year, an undergraduate emailed me a great question: If I knew then what I know now, would I still join Teach For America? And, last summer, after Chicago educator Katie Osgood asked new TFA corps members to quit, a corps member asked me the same question.

Indeed, Fordham Professor Mark Naison may have started a trend when he penned this piece about why TFA can't recruit in his classes. Now we've come to another TFA recruitment season, and several provocative stances regarding TFA have recently been made. In the Harvard Crimson, student Sandra Korn urged her classmates not to join—the Crimson’s editorial board responded with this defense of TFA—and Catherine Michna, a fellow TFA alumnus and academic, also recently wrote about why she will not write recommendation letters for students applying to the organization.

As someone who knows that nuance matters, I hesitate to tell students not to join TFA, though I agree with most of Michna's and Korn’s critiques of TFA and recognize that Naison and Osgood continuously raise valid concerns. Though I find it highly problematic, I also agree with the Harvard Crimson editorial board in this statement: "Teach For America is valuable because it provides at least a temporary solution to America's educational problems." However, those Harvard students couldn't be more factually right and morally wrong.

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Our Education System Isn't Broken, It's Designed to Create Winners and Losers

Schools intentionally and deliberately under-educate significant portions of our society.

In January, Frontline aired a documentary about Michelle Rhee's tenure as chancellor of DC Public Schools. On that show, Rhee articulated a major argument of education reformers: "I don't think our kids are broken. I think our system is broken." And she was right about this: our kids are not broken. But is our American public school system broken? Historical truth tells us otherwise.

The first public schools in this nation were charity schools for the children of the indigent and immigrants. Curricula pushed assimilation, acculturation, and morality. Schools sought to educate students just enough so they would be suitable for unskilled labor. Management of our unskilled labor forces would come from those who could afford to educate their children in schools not limited to assimilation and acculturation. Schools for the wealthy included the study of languages and religion, philosophy—things that humanize people and make us think.

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Please Stop Using the Phrase 'Achievement Gap'

The term reifies notions of black inferiority and condemns black students and educators.

Recently, I've been more and more troubled with the phrase "achievement gap." I was a 1999 Teach For America corps member and recently, in my occasional work with the organization, I've begun to share my concerns about what this concept suggests.

Because of America's racial history and legacy, the cross-racial comparison that holds up white student achievement as the universally standard goal is problematic. Further, the term "achievement gap" is inaccurate because it blames the historically marginalized, under-served victims of poor schooling and holds whiteness and wealth as models of excellence. And, as with all misnomers, the thinking that undergirds the achievement gap only speaks of academic outcomes, not the conditions that led to those outcomes, nor does it acknowledge that the outcomes are a consequence of those conditions.

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