Saturday, June 13, 2015

I'm Defending Teach for America

I'm about a week behind on this, mostly because I don't usually pay any attention to conservative rantist Michelle Malkin. Yes, she often rants against Common Core and corporate commandeering of public education, but when I first started picking apart the odd alliances, congruence, and alignments of the education debates, one thing became clear to me-- in these debates, as in other aspects of life, the enemy of my enemy might well be my enemy. Or at the very least, a trellis asshat.

Malkin made her recent stink in the New York Post, where she accused Teach for America of harboring dangerous radicals.

But those concerns pale in comparison to the divisive, grievance-mongering activities of the group’s increasingly radicalized officials and alumni.

TFA’s most infamous public faces don’t even pretend to be interested in students’ academic achievement. It’s all about race, tweets and marching on the streets.

She goes on to give accounts of recent civil rights activism by TFA members and alums, including popularizing and promoting the #BlackLivesMatter movement. She links this to TFA's recent initiative to include more men and women of color. She stops just short of saying that TFA has been taken over by a bunch of uppity black folks who don't know how to stay in place-- but only just short of that.

Look-- nobody is ever going to mistake me for a TFA supporter. I've explained numerous times why the organization, which has morphed into one more corporate-stoogery corporation, is bad for education. They started out with one simple foolishly naïve idea (any Better Person from the Right School can become a teacher in five weeks) and built on that foundation a structure of even worse ideas (our Better People can replace the inferior professionals and help charters cut the legs out from under public education). And they have long carried the smell of "white man's burden" colonial-style racism in their operation.

But here's two things about TFA. One is that their initiative to recruit men (and women) of color for the classroom is a response to a real problem. It might be a cynical marketing response, but g's still a response to a real problem. The other is that while I have no love or respect for the organization itself, I have always recognized that many folks join TFA with pure hearts and good intentions (yes, many are just looking at their resume, but not all). That to me one of the great evils of TFA-- they take young people with an interest in teaching, who might have been good teachers, and give them the worst possible introduction to the classroom.

And it's really those TFA recruits that Malkin is going after. She connects the corporate dots, but she's using that to work her way to the big reveal-- our tax dollars are supporting Black People Who Won't Sit Down and Shut Up.

TFA deserves a lot of things, not the least of which is to go away forever, but they don't deserve to be the excuse for a racist rant, and they certainly haven't earned the right to be painted as a training ground for Naughty Black Activists.

I know there are folks whose attitude is that we should attack our enemies whenever the chance presents itself  and that we should embrace anybody who wants to attack the people we want to attack. But what Malkin and the people who have followed her lead have constructed is a racist lie, and that's just not okay.

This is just one more reason to define oneself by what you stand for, not what you're against. There are plenty of folks out there who are against Common Core and high stakes testing who are also against public education (particularly when it spends tax dollars on Those People). I am not on the same side as those folks.

TFA deserves to be attacked for many reasons, but it's just wrong to support an attack on them that is based on inflammatory foolishness and which feeds the fires of racism.


  1. Malkin regularly spews nonsese, but TFA as the driving engine of black radicalism?

    Two summers ago, Gary Rubenstein wrote his annual article
    critiquing the methods and goals of the TFA Institute that was
    currently in session. As Gary indicates, he has been
    called a “bully” for doing this in the past, with TFA
    officials discouraging CM’s from posting or even
    reading Gary’s blog:

    The conversation includes a story of how TFA students—
    most of them from privileged backgrounds—drive around
    the poor neighborhoods like those seen on “THE WIRE”,
    and observe the people the same way that tourists on the
    Disneyland Jungle Cruise would observe the animatronic
    animals and robot natives on display.

    One thing that Gary found offensive was that the TFA
    instructor on this “jungle cruise” commented
    while observing the dissolute looking adults...
    homeless, winos, indolent with no jobs:

    “Everyone you see was once someone’s student.’…
    And those teachers (who once taught them) are failures.”

    Wow! This set people off, as evidenced by the
    COMMENTS section, which I’m excerpting here.

    Maggie Peterson said that the TFA teacher who
    said this “espouses what is, in my opinion,
    a common TFA trope, that a real, caring, belief that your
    students CAN do better makes them actually DO better.



    “Even in TFA policy actions, standards are touted not as
    a goal for student achievement, but as some magic tool
    for attaining high student achievement. The idea that
    students will achieve, or move out of the cycle of poverty
    solely because of caring teachers and teachers who hold
    students to high standards is also a belief that there is
    little else to be learned about the doing of teaching.”

    Carol Corbett Burris blasts away



    “I am appalled to learn that TFA would
    roll through any community pointing
    out human beings as though they were tour guides
    pointing out sites. It is an insult to the community,
    perpetuates ‘us and them’ thinking, and reveals a
    practice more suited for a cult than a teacher
    preparation program.”

    “When my husband was a teacher in Brooklyn,
    on a few occasions he had students who
    came to class less than 20% of the time and who did
    no schoolwork, say to him ‘You failed me, Mister.’
    I guess they heard the conversation on the TFA tour.”

    Karyn chimed in, adding that her “drive-arounds”
    included a photographic “scavenger hunt”:


    “Coming from a non-TFA background, and
    having certification, as well as being significantly
    older than other teachers at my school, I found
    myself quietly contemplating (TFA’s) many strange and
    silly practices which were considered professional

    “We too, drove around the impoverished area of our
    school and had a scavenger hunt to identify various
    things and take pictures. I found this odd and
    insulting to the ‘native’ inhabitants of the area,
    who looked strangely on groups of more affluent
    white people stopping to take photos and jumping
    back in there cars.”

    Mike Fiorello vents thusly,


    “What TFA should be saying during
    those drive-arounds – where, presumably, the
    windows are rolled-up and the doors locked tight while
    they observe neighborhood residents as if they were
    specimens – is that ‘everyone you see is an elected
    official’s constituent, a citizen and human being, and
    has been failed. And those officials and the people
    who bankroll them are failures.’

    “But TFA can’t say that, because to do so would
    call into question its agenda and funding. So
    instead, we get misdirection and scapegoating of
    teachers, followed by attempts to remove the
    statement when they were called on it.”

    “This is an organization whose arrogance,
    condescension, class antagonism and dishonesty
    are in its DNA.”

  2. While rare TFA folks engage in the protests Malkin describes, this is not the main thrust of the organization.

    Case in point, what happens to a TFA Corps Member who questions the reactionary party line?

    Read this:

    – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    “It was not until I asked why Teach for America was strikingly absent from the countless community demonstrations for schools I attend each week.

    “Concerns only materialized when I asked why my body was being used to dismantle the Philadelphia public schools.

    “Concerns only materialized when I asked to talk about fostering critical thinking, supporting students’ identities, and approaching the classroom with love, instead of merely discussing how to control bodies.

    “Concerns only materialized when I refused to strictly follow the command ‘obedience leads to freedom.’ A phrase I will never bow down to, for millions of my ancestors were brutally massacred in genocide waged under its translation: 'Arbeit macht frei.'

    “Concerns only materialized when they realized that I refused to displace veteran teachers, disrupt community, and instill permanent instability, a feat they arduously worked to achieve by placing the rest of the Philly corps of over 100 in teaching positions despite layoffs of 1-in-5 veteran educators.


    Just before being fired, he’s told by his non-educator TFA

    “Jay, your opinions need to remain silent.”

  3. Dear Peter Greene:

    Wow. Some good posts here.

    I have spent today thinking about the reporting of this new development in Teach For America. My son, age 26, has a friend we'll call Lena, and two days ago he announced that Lena had joined TFA. I told him that TFA had undergone some mission creep, and now regular teachers regarded TFA as people who are out to take their jobs. My son said that his friend Lena is in it to learn about teaching.

    So after reading your article, I sent my son a letter about Michele Malkin's article and suggested Lena also look at what others were writing, including a link to your article. My son restated his friend is just there to teach, not do politics, but she thanked me for the information. So, good! I relay her thanks to you, Peter, for the warning! She will know what to say if anyone wants to have her help organize a protest.

    I am concerned about this new morphing of mission: I tend to think that the TFA people are being used. For what and by whom, well, we may have to wait until one of them springs the trap, and then, of course, it will be too late for that person.

    It's probably ancient history now, but during my college years, the Chicago Seven were on trial. They were charged with two federal crimes: conspiracy to cross state lines to incite a riot, and crossing state lines to incite a riot. Each carried a 5 year sentence in a federal penitentiary. They were not convicted after a lengthy trial and appeal, although I think they served time for contempt of court, which was only fair, considering how disrespectful they were. Snort! :)!

    However, it wouldn't have to be Federal government that ensnares some TFA people organizing protests. States have statutes about instigating a riot, also. It's almost a cliché to imagine a state Attorney General figuring to make a run for Governor based on his crackdown on outside agitators riling up the locals to riot, loot, and burn. If the TFA people in question wanted to be made an example of, and help catapult someone's career to higher office, they couldn't be doing a better job of it. Today I watched a replay of Deray McKesson on Sean Hannerty's show (!?!) where he explained that he has been in several locations around the country organizing protests. All of these protests ended in rioting, looting, and burning.

    I have a very bad feeling about this, but I've already done all I can for someone who will listen to my concerns. For the rest of you TFA-ers: Be careful out there.