College Students Wage Campaign to Kick Teach for America Off of Campus

By Julianne Hing Sep 30, 2014

Members of Teach for America’s (TFA’s) target recruiting base are saying no to the teacher corps recruitment organization. Last week, student activists on a number of campuses including Harvard, Vanderbilt, University of Michigan and Macalester College launched a campaign spearheaded by United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) to call attention to TFA’s recruitment and training practices. Students’ demands? To win reforms or force their universities to sever ties with TFA.

On Friday, students at Harvard delivered a letter to university president Drew Faust asking that the institution cut ties with TFA unless the organization makes three key changes by October 8. The demands echo those of USAS-affiliated students at other campuses. The first: that TFA send its teacher recruits to places where there are teacher shortages and not to cities such as Chicago and New Orleans where, USAS argues, TFA corps members are replacing veteran–and unionized–teachers. Second, that TFA train its recruits beyond its standard five-week crash course before sending new corps members into the field. Third, that TFA stop partnering with or accepting money from corporate sponsors including J.P. Morgan Chase and Exxon Mobil. At the heart of their concerns, students say, is what they see as TFA’s role in the corporatization of public education. 

"TFA’s shift from an organization providing volunteers to overcome teacher shortages to an organization that de-professionalizes the teaching career and displaces veteran teachers has forced us as students to ask our universities to reconsider their relationship with Teach for America," read a letter USAS sent to TFA’s co-CEOs Matthew Kramer and Elisa Villanueva Beard and its founder and board chair Wendy Kopp last week.

In a response published Friday, Teach for America took a bright tone, thanking USAS for the public challenge and expressing regret that "a fair amount of misinformation" about TFA’s contested impact in cities including Newark, Chicago and New Orleans "made its way to you."

"Our program exists to meet local demand for teachers and long-term education leaders," TFA wrote in its response to USAS, adding that its 32,000 corps members "only apply for open positions." "On the training and support side… we strive to continuously improve our program," the statement read.

Criticism of TFA is not new. To its critics, the model of recruiting and placing brand new college graduates into under-resourced rural and urban schools for two-year stints is indistinguishable from corporate-style education reforms such as school closings and test-based teacher accountability mechanisms that have guided mainstream education reform for the last two decades. In recent years though, former staff and alumni have been among those speaking out about the organization. Last summer, Wendy Heller Chovnick, a former director at Teach for America’s Phoenix office, gave a public exit interview about her disillusionment with the organization. And Olivia Blanchard’s essay "I Quit Teach for America" published in the Atlantic last year was just the most high-profile of TFA alumni’s public critiques. 

"TFA has played a crucial role in displacing teachers who have committed their lives to their communities and justifying school closings. By doing so, [they’ve] put control over public education in the hands of private groups," says Blake McGhghy, a second-year undergraduate at Harvard with the Student Labor Action Movement. 

But Teach for America’s operating theory, says spokesperson Becky O’Neill, is "if we get some of the nation’s best minds thinking and working and committed to education, we’re going to start seeing change in a system that’s not working for low-income students of color." Ninety percent of students taught by corps members are black and Latino, according to TFA. Operating primarily as a "leadership development organization," O’Neill says, "gives us the privilege of being a bit agnostic on some of these reform issues."

>Still, the organization operates in the highly politicized world of education reform, and it’s a political powerhouse in its own right. Many of the lightning-rod education reformers in the nation today got their start in education as TFA corps members. Newark schools superintendent Cami Anderson, Tennessee education commissioner Kevin Huffman, former Washington, D.C., schools chief Michelle Rhee and Louisiana state superintendent John White are but a small collection of TFA alumni who’ve gone on to champion an education reform agenda that calls for charter school expansion, test-based teacher accountability mechanisms and school closures, all of which have been largely targeted at students of color. 

"While our university is complicit in the corporate education reform movement and plays a huge part in driving it forward, we’re asking students not to accept this model," says Harvard undergrad McGhghy.

"I myself have experienced TFA," says Vanderbilt University sophomore Dani Lea when asked why she decided to take part in the USAS campaign. Lea, who is African American, describes a bad experience with TFA corps members at her Charlotte, North Carolina, high school. "I had some teachers via TFA who weren’t competent and didn’t really know their subject matter and what was happening and who just weren’t very good teachers." 

"A lot of teachers quit before their two years were up, and some teachers who you heard were really good teachers, by the time you got to their level to take their class, they were gone," Lea says. Now that she’s in college, Lea says that many students on her campus think of TFA as merely a resume booster. She spoke of a Vanderbilt classmate who wants to do Teach for America and then go to culinary school. 

Indeed, TFA’s own recruitment policies contribute to the notion that it’s a stepping stone for those who would otherwise not take a two-year detour into the classroom. For example, TFA partners with top business, education, law and medical schools to grant two-year deferrals and application fee waivers for TFA alumni. On its website, TFA lists finance and consulting giants such as Deloitte, Ernst & Young, McKinsey & Co. and Bain and Company as companies that offer deferrals to new hires. 

"This idea that people are going into the classroom as a stepping stone to other things–it’s a tough stepping stone," says TFA’s O’Neill. According to its annual alumni surveys, says O’Neill, 64 percent of TFA’s 37,000 alumni are working in education in some capacity, while 31 percent are pre-kindergarten through twelfth-grade teachers. 

On October 10, Harvard students will host a speaking tour featuring TFA alumni. At Vanderbilt, says Lea, students are uniting to make demands of their university administration similar to those of Harvard students. Their short-term goal is to shut off the recruitment juggernaut that has made Vanderbilt the second-highest contributor of new recruits among medium-sized schools (PDF) this year.

"We realize we have a lot of political education we need to do," says McGhghy. "At the individual level we’re hoping to connect with students and inform them that if they want to support public education there are better ways to do it."