Sunday, May 3, 2015

TFA 5.0: Charters for Children

We have discussed the evolution of Teach for America before. Its ever-changing business plan mission has been a work in progress through several iterations:

TFA 1.0: The Best and the Brightest will help solve the teacher shortage, kind of like the Peace Corps.

TFA 2.0: Take a year or two off before grad school to beef up your resume with some non-court-ordered community service.

TFA 3.0: Traditional public school teachers pretty much suck. We are smarter and better.

TFA 4.0: We are here to bring diversity to the teaching force.

Teach for America has been having trouble with recruiting, though in all fairness, the entire teaching profession has been having trouble recruiting. It's almost as if young folks had heard nothing but how rotten the profession is, or had grown up seeing teachers reduced to automatons. Go figure.

But here comes a new pitch, a video and slogan that might signal TFA 5.0. The slogan "One Day, All Children" is a throwback to TFA founder Wendy Kopp's book by the same name (published, believe it or not, way back in 2001). The pitch-- well, the pitch will sound familiar.

"America's educational system should provide all children with opportunity," the clip begins. "Opportunity to succeed, to thrive."  But the voice-over lady goes on to tell us that depending on where a child is born, these opportunities may not exist. Because of race and poverty, a child may be subject to the tyranny of a zip code. The dream falls through "the cracks in an unfair system. For too many children, their zip code becomes their destiny."

At this point we are watching a little animation child plummet through empty space-- but here comes the logo of Teach for America to rescue the child, to lift it up (as the music shifts into a more hopeful major key).

TFA has seen too much progress to believe that your education has to be determined by where you live. TFA mission (this month) is to make sure "that every child has access to the same opportunities and choices."

TFA recruits from a group of "diverse thinkers and leaders" (so, you know, none of those sucky regular teacher types) from all backgrounds (not in the script, but a graphic saying 50% of TFA recruits identify as people of color). TFA shows them how to teach and supports them (here three adult stick figures gather around the child-- first they fill up with color, then so does the child, and then the child grows up and puts on a cap and gown while the teachers stance proudly, though of course TFA temps would mostly never be around by the time a small child graduated from high school).

Now, here comes a cool new way to parse the temp part of TFA--

They understand that their schools are part of a larger system, "so after two years, our teachers have a choice." They can stay in education (cue weasel-statistic that counts every vaguely ed-related job as "staying in education") and "continue to have a profound impact," or they can move on to "another career path" and lead in ways that "help our kids and help our country." Those leady roles include "advocates, policymakers, innovators and entrepreneurs."

As their network grows (cue web all over the US), TFA builds a movement. New TFA factoid-- 84% of alumni are working full time in "roles impacting education or low-income communities" and boy, isn't "impacting" a nice, broad all-purpose word here. It doesn't even carry a value judgment; if you're busy chasing poor people out of a neighborhood as prelude to gentrification, you are totally impacting a low-income community. Hurray! As long as you're making a difference, right?

So back to the child (who I now see is disturbingly handless). "Good for kids. Good for everyone."

Final slogan as we shift to logo-- "Change and be changed. Teach for America."

Residual traces of old, beloved sales pitches are still visible, but we have upped our helping of For the Children and completely dropped public education from the pitch. With almost no tweaking, this could be an ad for a charter chain. It already includes many of the choice crowd's favorite pitches. Each child should have choices and opportunities (not a great community school). Each child should be freed from the tyranny of the zip code (and policymakers should be freed from the problem of trying to make that zip code less of a place one would want to escape). And, of course, this is not work you want to commit to for a lifetime; it's simply the first step in your larger career of creating a network of educationny stuff (because, you know, the US public school system is not already a network devoted to educating America's children).

TFA has never looked less like an organization interested in helping the public school system pursue its mission, and it has never pitched itself more clearly as an educational network/empire separate from US public education. And of course its central fallacy remains unaddressed-- that anybody can be a teacher, as long as she is the Right Sort of Person from the Right Sort of Background. It's unfortunate that well-meaning college grads continue to be sucked in by this snake oil. The clip is embedded below, just to keep me honest. Not sure you really need to watch it.


  1. Actually, the TFA logo doesn't rescue the falling child. It lands first, then the logo comes swooping up. Not sure what that's supposed to mean.

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  3. You forgot to mention that the narrator sounds faintly, uh, non-white. Subliminal TFA message much?