Behind the Facade: A Three-Part Series on Teach for America

Part 1: ‘Bleach’ for America

“What would make someone want to move from California to become a middle school teacher in one of the poorest areas of Baltimore, Maryland?” asks popular daytime talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.

Her guest sits across from her, pondering the question for a few moments… He answers.

“If you fill your classroom with love today, you’re gonna fill the world with love tomorrow,” replies Wyatt Oroke.

Time for the tearjerker. Ellen reveals footage of loving testimonials from Oroke’s students:

“Mr. O is family.”

“I don’t have the support system at home. When I come from school and go home, I don’t really have no one there. To have Mr. O there at school, in the morning, it’s just very supportive.”

“It means everything to me that Mr. O has my back.”

Oroke’s impact on low-income students as an educator and role model is evident. The tears he sheds as his students pour their hearts out on national TV are the results of his hard work and the chain reaction that is Teach for America.

Teach for America (TFA) is a non-profit organization in search of  “promising young leaders” who challenge education inequity in the United States by teaching in low-income schools in need of assistance. These leaders travel the country, from regions labeled as ‘high-need’ such as Buffalo, the Las Vegas Valley, and Oklahoma City, to more common metropolitan areas such as New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago.    

If accepted, TFA teachers, or ‘Corp Members,’ are placed in schools in one of these many regions for two years, after which they graduate and become TFA Alumni.

Corp Members are typically fresh out of college twenty-somethings that are “idealistic, relentless in their pursuit of results, intelligent, well organized, and committed to ending educational inequity” as described by Rolf Straubhaar and Michael Gottfried in their 2014 research journal “Who Joins Teach For America and Why?”

For many, TFA is a call to arms. A selfless commitment for those willing to rise to the challenge. For others, it’s a cleverly disguised attack on education.

“Teach for America is resume padding for the new elite,” says Mark Naison.

Naison, 72, is a professor of history and African American studies at Fordham University, and a harsh critic of Teach for America. While Naison was “somewhat enthusiastic” about the organization when it first began, he believes TFA has devolved into a resume builder that’s nothing but a “revolving door of young teachers.”

“It’s not about teaching, it’s educational reform,” says Naison.

Naison is the founder of the Badass Teachers Association (BAT), an organization created to give voice to “every teacher who refuses to be blamed for the failure of our society to erase poverty and inequality.”

The real cause for inequality? Systemic and economic injustice. BAT members take a strong stance against Common Core State Standards (CCSS), federally set state standards determined by ‘Race to the Top’ grant money rather than teachers themselves.

These mandates opened up education to corporations that profit from the “sales of tests, test preparation materials, curriculum, and textbooks.” BATs believe that the real achievement gap is between the rich and the poor, societal shortcomings beyond a child’s control.

“Teach for America demonizes the hard working public school teachers who have worked for years,” says Naison.

Scrolling through Teach for America’s website, it’s difficult to see where Naison’s vitriol for the organization comes from. Their mission statement is a touch dreamy, perhaps even sycophantic, but a little bit of idealism never hurt, right? It obviously gets people interested, as TFA advertises that they have an alumni network of nearly 60,000 corp members.

TFA has been featured on The Ellen DeGeneres show, has an expansive list of positive alumni testimonials, and even received a 25th anniversary video from former President Barack Obama congratulating them on their service. So what gives?

To go back Naison, it’s not so much the teaching itself, but the implied result of those two years with TFA. TFA is not just for starry eyed college grads, but also for those looking to beef up that resume before graduate school.

Straubhaar and Gottfried’s research reveals that most TFA corp members, or at least the ones that participated in their study, “come from privileged backgrounds in terms of race and social class.” They see TFA as a brief intermission, a means to an end, one that doesn’t involve education.

68% (17/25) of the TFA participants in Straubhaar and Gottfried’s study saw teaching as a time to “think about their careers.” 64% (16/25) of the participants were white and described themselves as coming from a “middle or upper-class background.”

“Teach for a While, Temps for African Americans,” Naison lists the nicknames he’s given Teach for America. “And my favorite: Bleach for America.”

25 participants are hardly representative of a self-proclaimed network of 60,000+ alumni, but their testimonies are telling. One participant, ‘Ms. Parker,’ describes a typical TFA recruit as, “someone from like, a high profile school . . . I think a lot of TFA corps members still do come from like, higher-ranking schools, and I did go to a very, uh, good college, so in that way I fit the bill.”

‘Ms. Evans,’ a Latina participant, describes the difficulty much of the privileged TFA corp has with their students: “I feel like they have not been exposed to the difficulties that a lot of our students have been exposed to, so they find it kind of awkward, or difficult, they have the kind of attitude that they’re like a missionary.”

It’s not all bad, however, as Ms. Parker says that TFA is fully aware of these issues and actively working to fix them: “More and more I see TFA as pushing for, it seems to me like, pushing for more diversity in the corps, and I think that changes the kind of schools that people come from, and the kinds of backgrounds that people come from, and in turn the kinds of experiences and like leadership methods that people have.”

Recent data provided by TFA shows that 51% of the current corp members are white, while the other 49% are people of color. TFA also aligns itself with various LGBTQ, Black, and Latinx alliances, showcasing their recent commitment to an increasingly diverse workforce.  

So TFA is actively working against its reputation as a two-year vacation for the white elite. That’s great! So why does the organization still draw criticism, even in 2018? Well it turns out, the public education system is fighting a much bigger enemy than TFA.

Charter Schools.

Part 2: Corps and Charters

It starts with an email.

Subject: [x], Phone call next week?

Hello [x], I recently saw your profile on Handshake and am reaching out given your involvement with [y]. I was also compelled by your experience with [z]. It is clear that you have demonstrated leadership through empowering students and families and creating community. Because of this, you are in a position to join a network of change agents making a profound impact in communities across our nation.

This is the typical introduction TFA sends to a potential recruit — an impassioned plea for help. If one answers this call, the TFA journey begins.

Potential corp members must submit an online application with the usual fare: Resumes, recommendations, and references etc. The gang’s all here. What’s unique, however, is the actual in-person interview.

Recruits eligible for the final round must prepare a five minute lesson to present in front TFA staff and other recruits. The lesson can be anything from Math and Science, to English and History. After picking a grade level and subject, the recruit has to teach a full lesson within these five minutes.

Recruits then split into groups to participate in an activity. This activity covers an imagined scenario of education inequity. A struggling student from a broken family. A district closing multiple public schools, displacing thousands. These scenarios steel recruits for their possible real world encounters.  

“I wouldn’t do it again, at least for me,” says Adrienne Esposto, 27.

Esposto was a Junior at the University of Delaware when she interned at Teach for America. She majored in Communications, but felt herself drawn to education and TFA’s message. After her internship, she moved on with recruitment, eventually netting her position as a corp member in 2013.

Esposto was placed at Chicago Bulls College Prep to teach Special Education. When asked if she was nervous to teach, Esposto said she worried about diving into a “super emotionally charged” atmosphere, but that “the school provided adequate training” in addition to her six week bootcamp provided by TFA.

That’s right, six weeks. A bit short, right?

A license to teach in public schools typically requires a bachelor’s degree, a preparation program, and a series of exams — although the requirements vary from state to state. In Illinois, certifications are overseen by the Illinois State Board of Education Division of Educator Licensure.

To keep things simple, a teaching license in the state of Illinois requires these five things:

  • Official transcripts showing proof of bachelor’s degree.
  • Official transcripts showing proof of completing an accredited teacher preparation program.
  • Passing scores on the required exams.
  • Payment of non-refundable processing fee.
  • Completed application for teacher certification.

Suffice it to say this process takes longer than six weeks.

In contrast to typical educators, Teach for America sets their recruits on a fast track towards certification. By passing background checks and exams, recruits are able to receive a temporary teaching license, after which they can focus on obtaining their real certification, a process that takes “one to two years and begins as soon as you accept your offer to join the corps.

Even the partial training leaves most recruits unprepared.

A 2013 article from The Atlantic by Olivia Blanchard, a former TFA corp member, says that her training involved emphasizing platitudes rather than applicable skills.

“We were told that ‘uncommon techniques’ included ‘setting high academic expectations, structuring and delivering your lessons, engaging students in your lessons, communicating high behavioral expectations, and building character and trust,’” says Blanchard.

Esposto doesn’t recall such mundane feely exercises during her training. In fact, she says that she had a great support system during her time teaching, both from TFA and the Chicago Bulls Prep administration.

“I was a lot more confident going in my second year,” says Esposto. “You just know their needs.”

Despite her love for her school and students, Esposto finishes with an honest concession, “Teach for America is not looking to create teachers, they’re looking to create advocates for education.”

Even so, Esposto remains positive. “I like to think I made an impact,” she says.

When asked about her current relationship with Chicago Bulls Prep, the outlook was less optimistic. “They’ve done some amazing work,” says Esposto “but are currently under a lot of criticism.”

Chicago Bulls Prep is a part of the Noble Network of Charter Schools, an organization of 18 charter schools (17 high schools, 1 middle school) that serves over 10,000 students. The organization boasts a 90% college acceptance rate for it’s 98% minority student population.

Charter schools are publicly funded institutions that operate outside of state education laws. In exchange for more private autonomy, charter schools are expected to output greater student performance. A balance I’m sure has never been abused, not ever. Everyone is definitely ok with charter schools.

What’s TFA’s role in this controversy? Well, some critics argue that they’re intrinsically complicit with the “neoliberal paradigm of privatization under the guise of Civil Rights” that seeks to deregulate access to teaching. TFA fights to close the achievement gap with educators ill equipped to actually do so.

It varies by region, but places like New Orleans and Chicago are dominated by charter school networks. TFA places teachers with no certification and only six weeks of training in schools that require high level test scores in order to function.

“I came in with a masters degree,” says Katie Osgood, 40, educator and vocal critic against TFA and charter schools. She describes charter schools as a “conscious decision to attack public schools.”

“They’re not here to create teachers,” says Osgood, echoing Esposto’s sentiments. “They’re here to create leaders. It hurts kids when they just do the two years.”

A February 2018 study from Stanford University confirms Osgood’s suspicions. In New Orleans, the post-Katrina economy led to a massive influx of charters. Stanford studied the efficacy of these charters, citing that their educational reform was more aspirational than realistic.

“None of the 21 schools in the evaluation met the original targets outlined in the proposal in both reading or math,” Stanford says. “It bears noting that none of the comparison peers met the same targets either.”

“They used Katrina as an excuse to fire 7000 teachers and replace them with TFA.” says Osgood.

When asked whether she thinks TFA has made any positive impact on education inequity, Osgood was rather blunt.

“Absolutely not.”

Charters. Charters. Charters. Just about every criticism against Teach for America mentions them, if they haven’t already dedicated three scathing paragraphs belittling the concept.

It’s tempting to point to TFA’s shortcomings, the charter school controversies, the middling academic results, and feel like the antagonist here is clear and identifiable. However, test scores only tell us so much.

The day to day life of a teacher is rarely a grand narrative of executive meddling and white collar conspiracies — although those are certainly aspects.

In a narrative as complex as education inequity, measuring the unquantifiable data is as important of a test as any.

Part 3: The Myth of the ‘Superteacher’

“This ain’t MTV boy,” shouts former principal of North Miami Middle School, Alberto Ibers, as he motions to smack a student.

“He literally threw my student against the wall and slapped his sunglasses off,” says Tim Asprec, 29, a TFA graduate and current Manager and Recruiter for the New York/New Jersey region. “The way he reprimanded my student…” he says as his voice trails off, anger lingering in his throat.

Asprec taught at North Miami Middle School as a TFA corp member from 2012-2015. As a graduate of Rutgers University, he sought to apply his degrees in Psychology and History through teaching. TFA posed the perfect opportunity.

“This is really something I need to check out,” says Asprec as he recalls the memories of his early TFA career. Memories filled with excitement and anxieties.

“Am I even really the right person for this?” he wondered as he embarked on his six-week training program. When asked if he felt if TFA properly prepared him for teaching, Asprec provides a measured, if a touch PR-friendly, response: “Nothing really prepares you until that first day.”

Asprec argues that criticism against TFA’s preparation is a case-by-case issue, rather than a systemic problem. “The support system works in how you need it to work. It depends on the person’s personality,” says Asprec. “You get these Type A people who don’t want to admit to failing, and then they form toxic relationships.”

Although, when asked if TFA provided him with a proper support system, Asprec was ambivalent. “Yes and no,” he says. “You have to be an individual and be an ambassador for TFA.”

“They focus a lot on the individual, advocating for a superteacher narrative,” says Katie Osgood. “It’s not sustainable.”

‘Superteachers’ may be myths, but Asprec doesn’t find TFA’s goals unattainable. “How can you be against an idea of providing opportunities for these individuals?” says Asprec. “You can’t tell me we’re taking jobs when we can’t even fill all our spots.”

It’s evident that Asprec believes in TFA’s mission, one he’s remained dedicated to for almost 7 years.

“I don’t want to create a savior mentality,” he says, explaining his intentions.

Asprec says that school administrations are just as much to blame as TFA’s tactics. “Everyone talks about teacher retention, but nobody talks about administration retention,” he says, referencing former North Miami Middle School principal Alberto Ibers as evidence for systemic abuse.

Ibers was the target of criticism back in 2015 after making controversial statements on Facebook about police brutality and minorities.

A 2016 student run blogspot was created for the sole purpose of getting Ibers fired.

Their mission statement is as follows:

“We, the students of North Miami Senior High, have created this blog to let everyone know the kind of shit we have to put up with at our school.”

The blog tackles a litany of student and administrative problems at North Miami High, not just the ones at the hands of ‘Dictator Iber.’ It’s a haven where students can voice their grievances.

  • “Reverse racism? Come on man, they kicked you out of here thanks to kids like us who exposed how dirty the school was, how unsafe the school was that a girl even got raped.”
  • “Stop charging us money because we don’t have a school ID or are in uniform that day. Some of us don’t have $2 to pay to get out of CSI and so we’re stuck in there the entire day and miss class for these stupid violations.”
  • “We need to have smaller classes so that we can actually have a desk to sit at and do our work. Why would anybody put more kids in a class than desks? That makes no damn sense at all.”

While student outrage can be perceived as whining to some, for Asprec, these experiences are indicative of the work that needs to be done. “They’re pushing our communities to the shadows,” says Asprec. “It’s tough when your life opportunities depend on actual zip code.”

“The people that are recruited are not the problem,” says Osgood, admitting that TFA’s corp members have the potential to be skilled educators.

However, Osgood believes that if someone wants to be an educator, they have to do the legwork. Citing her recent experience with a TFA recruit in the classroom, Osgood says that she was a “lovely person” but that she had her “hand held throughout it.”

The problem with TFA isn’t a lack of ambitious candidates, but its role in a system that is increasingly privatized by charters, employs candidates that have no long term interest in education, and is often used as a two-year soul search whose reward is not equality, but a pretty header on one’s grad school application.

“They’re woke, but not too woke,” says Osgood.

That said, people like Asprec still believe in TFA’s message. “Critics want to poke holes in ideas rather than build bridges,” says Asprec. “If you thought this was going to be easy, then there wouldn’t be education inequity.”

Behind TFA’s mask is not a malicious demon, but a complex series of individual experiences that amount to more than aggregating test scores.

An empathy lap for the liberal elite? Or a genuine fight against inequity? Perhaps TFA is both.

“The minute this becomes a gimmick is the minute I leave,” says Asprec, unwavering in his mission.

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