TFA Survey Item 1: One day all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.
Strongly Agree, Agree, Neutral, Disagree, Strongly Disagree
What is this question asking? Is it asking whether or not I believe that all children can learn? Is it asking whether all children deserve an excellent education? What is an excellent education according to TFA anyhow?
It would seem important to define the term before asking if I agree with the statement. I think, though, that this question is asking if I believe in TFA and its vision statement. Well, TFA, here is my answer:
I hope that one day all children in this nation will have access to an excellent education, but, truthfully, I fear that they will not. Please read on to understand my dilemma in answering your rigged survey question.
Excellent Education or a Biased Education?
An excellent education is one that not only prepares students to succeed in an unjust and biased (read: racist, classist, sexist, and heteronormative) education system and society, but also teaches the knowledge and develops the skills/mindsets needed to challenge the injustices that undergird our schools and society. An excellent education ensures academic achievement, but it also must ensure positive, racial (and cultural/linguistic) identity and a critical consciousness. I do not think TFA or any high-performing charter network is providing or advocating for the opportunity to attain that kind of excellent education.
Instead of an excellent education, TFA and high performing (compliance-based) charter schools are hyper-focused on ensuring that One day, Black and Brown children living in poverty will have access to a rigorous “White” education: an education that validates, legitimizes, and perpetuates White, male, heterosexual, English-as-a-first-language superiority and dominance.
This kind of test-score-producing (but identity-shattering) education cannot be transmitted the same way to poor students of color as it is transmitted to White, middle class students because they are deemed so “behind.” Therefore, non-dominant culture students must work harder and longer. They are forced to sit straighter and stand in lines. They must wear collared shirts and khaki pants. They must stay silent, track the teacher, and give 100%, everyday. To top it all off, our students of color must remain kind, determined, zestful, and gritty (code words for compliant) while working twice as hard to sadly assimilate into a society that will not reward them for their college degrees or khakis. Our non-dominant culture kids learn all too late that meritocracy is a myth and they were asked to work twice as hard for half as much as their White, affluent counterparts. Racism is real.
All children or all Black and Brown children?
While TFA and “No Excuses” charter networks focus on giving Black and Brown students what White kids already have, no one is focused on providing White children a critical, anti-biased excellent education. Amanda Lewis wrote,
“Education that is critical, multicultural, and focused on racial justice cannot be reserved only for students of color. We must ask ourselves, can much change if the educational experiences of White middle-class children do not undergo some transformations?”
Lewis is right; and if TFA truly wants to ensure that all children attain an excellent education, perhaps it needs a corps of teachers to go into White suburban schools to teach counter-narratives, challenge White privilege, cultivate critical consciousness, and develop positive, anti-biased White racial identities.
Lastly, since inception, TFA has been an out-sized actor in the education reform movement. With people like Senator Michael Johnston and networks like KIPP, there is an increased culture of standardization, accountability, and compliance. For teachers and students, schools have become anxious places where worth is based on a test score. It seems that in solving one problem—inequity in test scores—TFA has created other problems in American Education and so an “excellent education for all” may have become even more out of reach.
So TFA, how do I answer your question? If I answer “Strongly Agree” to try and show I believe in students and the fact that they deserve an excellent education you will think I support your organization, its vision, and its methodology, and I do NOT. If I answer “Strongly Disagree” to try and show you that I do not think you, as an organization, or us, as a society, are on the right track in our efforts to end educational inequity, you will think I have given up. But that is not the case either. I just believe that the problem is more complex and deeper than your definition or solution. Finally, I will not pick neutral because neutral does not exist; one is either on the side of equity or on the side of oppression.
When it comes to this rigged question, TFA, I will not pick one of your options; instead, I will send you this response. Likewise, children should not have to choose between under-resourced, low-expectation-holding schools—OR—high performing, “rigorous” but compliance-driven, status-quo-perpetuating schools. Until a truly just option exists, I will keep fighting so that one day all children will have an excellent, anti-biased, critical education.
For examples of schools that aim for academic results AND positive racial identities/and critical consciousness, see June Jordan School for Equity and MET West (a Big Picture School) where students develop equity literacy and pursue social justice. Also check out the Zinn Education Project. These are all schools/projects that are working to ensure truly excellent educations for all. If you know of more, please comments and leave the name/website.
For more information on preparing culturally responsive and critical educators/students for social justice, please visit: amberkkim.com
*I would like to thank one of my graduate students, also a TFA corps member, for the inspiration for this blog post. Let me know if you want me to add your name.