The Truth about TFA: a book review of Learning from Counternarratives in Teach for America by S. Matsui

Teach for America (TFA) purports to be a “force for good” in education—an organization that works tirelessly to end educational inequity, yet there are a growing number of TFA alumni, public school teachers and students, and education researchers who are organizing and speaking out against TFA. Why? How can a “good” force working for social justice in education be bad? What is the fuller truth about TFA?

A fuller truth about any person, place, or organization is always layered and full of edges, curves, contradictions, and intersections. A fuller truth allows for this complexity and the dissonance it creates. A simplified truth, in contrast, is a partial truth. It is a more comfortable, vague, and “catchy” truth, but it is a distortion. To distort the truth—and consequently the reality of a problem or an organization—does not require animus or the telling of lies; instead, one only needs to massively underrepresent or marginalize wider facts and dissenting perspectives and enthusiastically promote one’s simplified and partial version of the truth to iconic status in a way that obscures those facts and differing perspectives.

TFA may not be deliberately lying and intending harm, but TFA’s narrative about itself as an organization–the problems in education, the solutions to inequity, TFA’s impact on achievement, students, corps members, and communities—is a simplified and enthusiastically, intentionally, well-promoted version of the truth. In fact, TFA is on college campuses, in government offices, meeting with funders, and in the ears of charter school networks and thousands of current corps members speaking its version of truth–a distorted, partial truth. To fight inequity, though, people need to know a fuller more accurate truth, and this can only be known if suffering is allowed to speak and if it is heard. Hearing stories of hurt that run counter to TFA’s version of the truth, though, is difficult when suffering does not have nearly the budget that TFA has to amplify its voice.

This is where Sarah Matsui and her recently released book, Learning from Counternarratives in Teach for America: Moving from Idealism to Hope (2015, Peter Lang), comes in to play. Sarah let suffering speak and amplified the counternarratives of corps members in the hopes of helping people—including TFA—hear and know a fuller more complex and problematic truth about TFA. In allowing suffering to speak, Sarah not only amplifies the experiences and feelings of the 26 corps members in her study, she validates the thousands of corps members who have felt the shame, guilt, anxiety, depression, indoctrination, and pressure that TFA pushed on them. I am one of those thousands. As a TFA alumni who has recently published my own counternarrative in the book Teach for America Counter-Narrative: Alumni Speak Up and Speak Out, I was anxious to see how the stories of the 26 Philly corps members compared with my own and helped to convey a more fuller truth.

Sarah’s book is not so much a call for an end TFA, but, instead, it is a call to everyone—TFA staff members, TFA corps members, districts officials, parents, students, public school teachers—to pick up the rock that is TFA, to turn it over and examine all the crevices, bumps, and sides, and to know the full truth about TFA. This is a book of hope not doom because only when people of all different backgrounds and from all different positions, know the full truth can healing and change begin.

Most powerful for me is how Sarah’s investigation doesn’t solely or only focus on the typically described downfalls of TFA and its approach. There are already many pieces written about the impact (or lack thereof) TFA has on student achievement data, the destabilizing effects of the 2 year commitment, and the problems with creating leaders (not teachers) by recruiting leaders (not teachers) to teach our most marginalized youth. Sarah’s book has a different focus entirely, and therefore, her book is very different from other TFA critiques.

Sarah, a former corps member and TFA staff member, began her research driven by the desire to understand the intense depression, anxiety, and alcohol abuse of the corps members around her. Her research, at first, had only one purpose: to inform TFA and to drive interventions that would support her fellow corps members and alum. After engaging in the qualitative research process, though, she began to see commonalities in the counternarratives. Sarah took note of how the stories of corps members by TFA were drastically different than the stories from corps members in TFA. She also noticed how very few of those counternarratives of critical corps members ever surfaced; their stories of suffering were ignored, marginalized, or shamed into silence. Sarah then distanced herself from TFA and committed herself to learning from and amplifying the stories (counternarratives) of corps members.

So what can we learn from the counternarratives in Teach for America? One of the most important things that Sarah uncovered in her research is what is causing the painful counternarratives of corps members—the TFA Script. TFA’s Script (referred to as the TFA Kool-Aid) is its version of the truth about itself and educational inequity in the U.S. The book describes TFA’s Script as “…the stuff that sounds good and draws people to invest their funds, their resources, and themselves in TFA” (p. 23), but Sarah weaves together evidence that this script is an oversimplified, not-connected-to-reality version of the truth that negatively impacts teachers, learners, and leaders.

For those who live and operate within reach of this TFA script, they begin to believe that excellent teaching is “nothing elusive” and that hard work of TFA corps members (and subsequently their students) can overcome the effects of poverty and the racism and classism that caused the inappropriately termed “achievement gap” in the U.S. Therefore, when corps member (and subsequently their students) fail at leveling the field in a sustained and pervasive way, they blame themselves for not working hard enough to succeed. Believing this myth of meritocracy that the TFA script narrates burns out many of our TFA corps members and students; Sarah documents how corps members become physically and mentally exhausted and sick; they become anxious and plagued with guilt and shame; they try to cope with dangerous drinking habits and by abusing drugs. In short, besides the horrible effects this TFA script has on our marginalized and underserved students, schools, and communities, the TFA script destroys our human resources needed for fighting systemic inequity.

The truth about TFA is complex so, yes, there are corps members that seemingly succeed. They end up leaving the TFA corps believing that there is “nothing elusive” to ensuring “one day” all children receive an excellent education. They whole-heartedly buy that “working hard” leads to “getting smart” and ending the “achievement gap.” I wonder if this is even more dangerous than burning our human resources? When meritocracy and the words of TFA’s founder, Wendy Kopp, resonate in the hearts of corps members, those same corps members head out into the world post-TFA to spread this partial and toxic truth. They end up opening “No excuses” charter schools or writing legislation that punishes teachers that do not end educational inequity through working hard and making children work harder.

The truth about TFA is not simple and requires all of us to examining the uncomfortable, messy, and painful parts of TFA. If enough of us know the truth, though, then there is hope. Hope for healing, hope for change, and hope that we can construct a more complicated and nuanced narrative to fight educational inequity. There is so much to learn from the counternarratives in Teach for America, as long as they are heard. This book amplifies those counternarratives. Some may chide Matsui for dwelling on the “problem of TFA” and not being solution-orientated enough. I, however, will stand firmly beside Sarah and know that solutions can only come after we take the time (and entire books) to examine all sides of TFA; we must let suffering speak and hear truth.

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