During my interview for Teach for America in the spring of 2007, the interviewer asked me to explain what I felt was the cause of the achievement gap. I replied that I thought schools serving primarily low income and minority students were educating children who faced severe challenges in their lives due to poverty, and that the schools were not adequately equipped to address those problems. Earlier that day, in the group interview segment, I had argued that the readings we did focused too heavily on “low expectations” as the primary cause of educational inequity and that poverty was being treated as an “excuse.” When my group had to look at an imaginary case study of a low performing school with low teacher morale, many of my group members focused on the need to have “tougher standards.” I argued that in my experience with schooling in low-income California communities (during college I was a tutor at an East Los Angeles middle school), the standards were already quite rigorous and that the cause of the low scores and morale probably lay elsewhere. I proposed more professional development for teachers and collaboration time, as well as a chance to learn more new and up to date teaching methods.
Given the amount of time that TFA spent in the following years minimizing the impact of out of school factors on student learning, I’m surprised in retrospect that my interviewer liked my responses. At the end of the interview she remarked that she appreciated how deeply I thought about things, and that she herself agreed that the achievement gap was much more complex than “high expectations” or “low expectations.” Although TFA has a particular image that it projects to the public, I realized by being in the organization that there is a lot of diversity of thought- among corps members and alums as well as among staff. Ideologically, I had the sense that TFA was a big tent. One of our keynote speakers at induction was ’92 LA alum and soon-to-be LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer, a pro-union teacher who regarded the charter movement with apprehension.
It was around that I joined TFA however, that the organization became a fully embedded wing of the one particular brand of school reform that regarded unions as intransigent enemies and believed that teachers should be evaluated by their students’ test score data. I first heard of Michelle Rhee during my first year, and she quickly because the organization’s star alum. During that year, I often visited Steve Zimmer for advice and support at his his Northeast Los Angeles community center, and was always impressed by the way he insisted upon being a supporter, never a savior, of the community activists already working there. To me, there was no approach to reform more radically different from his than Michelle Rhee’s: a top down approach that emphasized sanctions against an imagined horde of lazy teachers and shutting out community input. Sadly, it was brash and destructive people like Rhee and not the quiet and dedicated activists like Zimmer who became the face of TFA that year and the years that followed.
Today I have more reasons for optimism regarding the direction of Teach for America than I did in 2007-2008. When I met with the new executive director of TFA San Diego, he mentioned that many people in the TFA organization had reacted favorably to the words of Camika Royal in her speech to incoming 2012 Philadelphia corps members. In that speech, Dr. Royal referred to the “achievement gap misnomer” and said, “You are not here to replace educators or to reinvent educational opportunities. You are here to reinforce the work that is already happening.” (I might add that her speech received tremendous applause from the inductees in the audience). This sounds a lot more like the Zimmer model than Rhee, and I’m heartened to hear that it has been received positively by TFA.
Corps members tend to learn on the job that the fight for educational equity is much more complex than many of the education reform slogans make it out to be. Most of the blogs that I read on this site are very nuanced in the opinions and views that they express. Just several hours before this posting, Mr. K on the blog Break Every Yoke told a story of one of his most behaviorally challenged students and remarked, “I no longer believe that poverty and other external factors don’t matter for students like IR—such arguments are naive at best, malicious at worst.” In recent years, TFA has aligned itself who people who claim that external factors don’t matter, that the achieving educational equity is a simple matter of removing bad teachers with low expectations, and that community engagement is not particularly important. But TFA corps members themselves know better and usually hold less simplistic views. In embracing those views once again, TFA is moving in a positive direction.