TFA Wants My Money: Why I said “NO!”

On November 15, 2016 I received an email from Kevin Huffman (you can read it at the end), a TFA National Board member. He was asking me to donate and said: Visit my campaign page! Here is my response. I tell him what I perceive to be the problem with and the solution for Teach for America.

 

Dear Kevin,

You emailed on November 15, and since you reached out to me, I would like to respond truthfully and frankly. I hope that you will take the time to read my response to your email.

I want you to know that I am one of the TFA alumni that wrote a counter-narrative for the book edited by T.J. Brewer and K. deMarrais; the book that was purposefully discredited by TFA. The book that TFA publicly claimed was “misconceptions” of a few corps members. By doing this, TFA attempted to shame and silence dissension of corps members.

I want you to know that I was a teacher with a M.A. in teaching with 3 years of experience before I joined the corps. I want you to know that I now have a Ph.D. in education and teach in a Critical Pedagogy graduate program.

I want you to understand that while I share your mission, we strongly disagree on what an “excellent education” is.  I want you to understand as a working class and first generation college student, I don’t care if I am representative of the students we teach, or that I added to TFA’s diversity of the corps. My identity didn’t mean I was free of internalized oppression and not oppressing students of the same background as me.

No I will not contribute to an organization that, although has changed, still continues to oppress students, communities, corps members, and public education (see S. Matsui’s book and the research of T. White). Instead, I will work tirelessly to partner with teachers to use critical pedagogy in their classrooms and schools; to encourage the development of Equity Literacy in all schools; to eliminate dehumanizing practices like behavior narration, no-nonsense nurturing, compliance driven methods (“silent hallways” and “enter the class silently and complete your Do Now), SLANT, and strict dress codes that sexualize and shame bodies. TFA may not explicitly condone all of these methods, but they align with schools that do. These methods do not “Liberate;” they are the opposite of liberation.

Lastly, I am offended by your strategic and over-use of people of color on your promotional materials (see below). I wish, instead, that it was your picture on the email from you. It would be much more accurate and personal. Even when I click on the link under your signature that says “Visit my campaign page” it does not show your picture (on your own campaign page). This is misleading.

Thank you for your time and I am available for any sincere dialogue on these issues.

Sincerely,

Amber Kim, ATL 2001


To my fellow alumni,
 
We joined Teach For America for different reasons and had different experiences, but we all emerged bound by a shared vision: an education system that serves all children. We’ve learned many lessons over the years and are approaching this goal from a wide range of roles and sectors, but our collective impact is real.
 
I’ve now experienced Teach For America from many angles. I taught bilingual first and second grade. I worked at summer institutes helping new corps members prepare. I joined the staff full-time to focus on growing the Teach For America network. My daughter was taught by a brilliant corps member. And, as a state education commissioner, I saw corps members and alumni lead critical change in my state’s largest cities.
 
For me, the uniquely unsettling election season deepened my belief in the value of national service, the need to support young people who roll up their sleeves and do the hard work, and the importance of building strong, diverse, local communities. I’m proud that Teach For America has grown and evolved over the last three decades. I’m proud that we continue to compel tens of thousands of young people to apply for the chance to work in our highest need schools. I’m proud that the corps looks more like the country today, with a much higher percentage of teachers of color and teachers from low-income backgrounds than the teaching force at large. 
 
No matter where life has taken us, each of us plays a role in creating a better future for kids. With two weeks left to go in the Alumni Challenge, I ask you to fuel this fight with a financial contribution. Every dollar donated to a region by November 29th will be matched.
 
Many of us make a small gift each year to our alma maters as a point of pride and responsibility to the next generation. I hope you will consider doing the same for Teach For America—and to double the impact of that gift by giving today.
 
Together, we can grow and strengthen the movement.
 
With gratitude,
 
Kevin Huffman (Houston ’92)
Teach For America National Board
Former Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education
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White Privilege in Racial Justice Work

Let me start by emphatically saying: THESE ARE NOT MY WORDS. I did not write the following, but I completely own it. Paul Gorski posted a piece from his preface to his book, Everyday White People Confront Racial and Social Injustice. He explains how White privilege works for him (me) in his (my) anti-oppression and racial justice work.
Paul writes:
  1. I am often offered money, praise, and other rewards for going into communities and organizations and saying things that people of color in those communities have been saying, sometimes for generations, and often at their personal, physical, and professional peril.
  2. I was able to build a career out of doing social justice work without being seen as self-absorbed and self-serving. Rather, I’m often seen as brave for doing work for which many people of color are criticized, demeaned, targeted with violence, fired, and de-professionalized.
  3. It’s one thing to do racial justice work, and it’s something else altogether to be doing racial justice work while experiencing the weight of racism. One major difference is that I can, if I choose, retreat from racial justice work when it feels hard or inconvenient, while people of color cannot retreat from racism.
  4. I am often credited for ideas, concepts, and frameworks related to social justice that are not original to me even when I say they are not original to me.
  5. I can be seen by many people as a change agent or activist simply by writing essays or books about racism, by teaching courses about racism at a university, by speaking at plush diversity conferences, or by doing cultural competence or diversity consulting, regardless of whether I do any racial justice work for which I am not financially compensated and regardless of how I spend the rest of my time.
  6. I have the option of softening my racial justice message for particular types of audiences if doing so will help me sell more books or have a higher likelihood of being hired as a facilitator or consultant, and I can do so without making my parents or sister or niece and nephew, who are white, vulnerable to racism.
Thank you, Paul, for posting this and making these truths transparent.

Education for Liberation, Not Assimilation

Bravo Wisdom Gillchrist Amouzou! Thanks for showing us that true education equity is about teaching students to be transformative resisters–able to see, understand, deal with, respond to, and redress oppression.  And to do all that, Wisdom shows us that students must know themselves, their assets, and the strengths of their communities. They must form deep reciprocScreen Shot 2015-12-08 at 10.02.32 AMal relationships with their peers and educators. Relationships rooted in being authentically known not steeped in compliance, assimilation, and judgment of character. Furthermore, students must have educators that are not afraid to let go of overly simplified notions of “excellence” and give students power and voice.

“We assume that access to a college education is enough to uproot systems of oppression; It simply isn’t. It is fundamentally a low expectation of what education can be.”

Wisdom has worked for a high performing Charter Network (see the shirts students are wearing) and has recently created a video that states:  “When I see a system that might produce GREAT DATA but fundamentally disempowers my students; when I see a system in which my students will graduate CONFORMISTS instead of TRANSFORMATIVE, it is very much UNDERMINING what we are doing [in terms of educating for EQUITY]. We assume that access to a college education is enough to uproot systems of oppression; IT SIMPLY ISN’T. It is fundamentally a LOW EXPECTATION of what EDUCATION CAN BE.”

Wisdom also explains the lies of compliance: “We tell students that if they can essentially shut up, walk in a straight silent line and sit down in class and listen long enough to see a return on our investment in May (when they take that standardized test), they will achieve their dreams–they will find LIBERATION for their community. And to me it is a HOAX. It doesn’t take into account what it means to be SYSTEMATICALLY OPPRESSED.”

He describes the pain of an education that ignores the oppression that students have faced and will face in college and beyond: “It does a great deal of VIOLENCE to your consciousness to constantly see inequity in your community and never be given the tools to either comprehend that pain or address that pain, to HEAL that pain.”

Wisdom calls for an excellent education that is not rooted in merely test-score equity and access to college.  He calls for an excellent education that also develops students with a positive socio-cultural identity and equity literacy (the ability to see, respond to, and redress inequity and oppression).  It is not an easy task, but you can watch the process unfold with Wisdom and his students: Education for Liberation VIDEO

 

 

College Readiness and the New Civil Rights Movement

This photo gives new meaning to teaching children & teens to be “college ready.” In addition to academic mastery and skills, our students need to develop critical consciousness and to prepare for transformative resistance. High SAT scores are not enough! We need to help all students Pre-K to Grade 12 develop equity literacy (the ability to recognize, respond to, and redress inequity and oppression).  Perhaps, then, our kids could effectively face, respond to, and correct for such oppression.

Please don’t confuse teaching equity literacy with lowering standards or with culturally responsive teaching. Developing students who are transformational resisters is actually raising the bar and requires all students to be critical, reflective, courageous thinkers that understand history, sociology, current events, perspective-taking, and rhetoric. Oppression and privilege are real and daily experiences for our students and children. Students must be prepared to challenges these injustices that undergird our society, only then will they be college and life ready.

For another example of the injustices our kids face in college: watch this video of the OU SAE racist chant. This, too, is a part of the college/university experience in America and we must get students ready to challenge it!

For help developing equity literacy in your school leaders, staff, and students, please visit amberkkim.com and check out these resources:

Equity Literacy for All

Teaching Tolerance Publications

Equity Literacy

What’s Wrong with “Grit”?

“Work hard, No excuses” rhetoric is supposed to stand in contrast to the racist and classist belief that has dominated U.S. Schools for centuries: the belief that poor children of color can’t/shouldn’t learn and therefore we mustn’t put forth effort or resources to educate them.  It also stands in contrast to the racist and classist belief that poor children of color have very difficult lives and, therefore, it would be cruel of us to expect much from them.  To oppose these unjust racist/classist beliefs that widen the achievement gap, many schools have adopted the mantra WORK HARD and show GRIT.

When we teach that “Hard Work = Success” (i.e. hard work is the most important ingredient for success), we also inadvertently teach that not being successful is always the result of NOT working hard (i.e. being lazy). This is a very dangerous, and untrue message, particularly for people of color. It is this kind of rhetoric that puts all the blame for “failure to achieve” on the individual (and her/his teacher). No blame is assigned to (and no resources are provided to combat) the systemic and pervasive racism in the U.S.  Johnson (2006) explains the frustration and disillusionment that people of color feel when they believe in the myth of hard work in America. He writes, “It especially galls middle-class black who believed what whites told them, that if they did everything right–if they went to school and worked hard and made something of themselves–race would no longer be an issue. But they soon discovered, and they learn anew every day, that nothing seems to protect them from their vulnerability to white racism.” Institutionalized racism can block success and achievement even when people work hard and be nice.

Since the “Achievement Gap” in U.S. schools is a result of racism and classism, it should not and cannot be undone by merely forcing kids to “work hard.” Demanding that the only solution is for students to pull themselves up by their boot straps when systemic racism and classism makes their boots so impossibly heavy while, at the same time, makes other children’s boots extremely light is unjust. Instead, we–as educators– should also be working very hard to lighten the boots of the oppressed and challenge the status quo.

Please read the following pieces to understand what’s wrong with grit:

Teaching Kids ‘Grit’ is All the Rage. Here’s What’s Wrong With It.

Why ‘Grit’ Will Never Be the Key to Overcoming Poverty and Racism

More Thoughts on “Grit” and the Sloganification of Education Reform

Is ‘Grit’ Racist?

I Swear: On “Grit,” Adult Hypocrisy, and Privilege

References

Johnson, A. G. (2006). Privilege, oppression, and difference. Power, privilege and difference,, 12-40.

Opposite of Equity: TFA Attempts Narrative Control

It is never ok to control the narrative of someone else’s trauma or oppression–not as an individual, not as an organization.  Furthermore, it is not ever ok for White, affluent, Ivy-League-connected people of power (particularly those who claim to be “equity-driven”) to attempt to silence and shame the narratives of those who have been marginalized. Therefore, Teach for America, it is NOT OK–as an organization or as individuals–to minimize and marginalize the counter-narratives written in Teach for America Counter-Narratives: Alumni Speak up and Speak Out.  If you are a change agent and committed to ending systemic and institutional inequity in this nation (this is the claim of TFA plastered on its website), then please learn more about the role of dominant and counter-narratives (they are foundational to racial, gender, class, and LGTBQ equity work) and LISTEN to the counter-narratives.

Dominant and Counter-Narratives

“There’s really no such thing as the `voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” Arundhati Roy

There are dominant voices, the voices of power and privilege, the voices of those with resources. They are amplified and believed. Stanley (2007) describes dominant (master) narratives as scripts that dictate how things work and how stories are framed.  This includes how problems are defined (like problems of equity) and the best ways to solve them. The dominant narrative is created by the dominant culture that has privilege, access, and power in society.The dominant narrative tells the experience and the perspective of the dominant culture as truth. Most importantly, the dominant narrative is used and perpetuated by the dominant culture (at times unintentionally/subconsciously) to maintain its dominance and power.

Counter-narratives, on the other hand, deconstruct the perspective and script of the dominant culture that is deemed “normal” and “right.” Counter-narratives present alternatives to the dominant discourse (Stanley 2007). They seek to entirely reframe how problems are defined and solved, often finding that the framing of the problem is problematic. Counter-narratives are born out of the experiences of people and groups that do not fit and are critical of the dominant narrative.  They are the voices of those who are often silenced and marginalized.

Equity work at its core involves listening to, validating, and amplifying the voices of those who are systemically suppressed and institutionally ignored. Therefore, when TFA posted this response on its website, I felt more confident then ever that my counter-narrative,“Perpetuating, Committing, and Cultivating Racism: The Real Movement Behind TFA” was very accurate–in essence TFA had just validated with its response that it perpetuates the status quo. TFA’s response was attempting to suppress the counter-narrative.

In its attempt to control the overall narrative by minimizing our counter-narratives, TFA labeled our perspectives as “misconceptions” and stated that we, the authors, have “chosen to focus on past experiences that are not in line with how we [TFA] operate.”  This strategic wording asserts that our TFA experiences (conceptions)–what we thoughtfully described as happening/happened–are wrong (mis).  Furthermore, TFA framed our counter-narratives as choices instead of accepting them as valid perspectives.  By stating that the authors of the counter-narratives “chose” to focus on the past, TFA seeks to blame us and shame us. Lastly, TFA seeks to negate our perspectives by declaring that our main criticisms are no longer “how we operate” and, therefore, our counter-narratives are not valid.

 

In a final bold move, TFA posted 20 narratives of TFA alumni that exemplify the dominant TFA narrative.  While I do not think TFA should take them down (it is always good to have multiple perspectives), I do think it is interesting to consider their role and purpose. The dominant narrative that “TFA is a solution to educational inequity” is well established (and well-funded).  Our counter-narratives were published to show other perspectives, to make the dominant narrative about TFA and education reform more complex, nuanced, and to amplify the voices that–until now–have not been heard.  Similarly, when Fredrick Douglass wrote his [counter] narrative, The Narrative of a Slave, it would have been very curious if a counter, counter-narrative was published: a narrative of a slave owner that described how slavery was working well for those in power. Forgive me if you find my example hyperbolic, but the point is the dominant narrative is already dominant…is it not possible to make room for another narrative? If not, why? What is the cost to those in power?

TFA must examine the ways its current incarnation sustains and promotes the status quo and the supremacy of the dominant culture.   I truly wish TFA could have written a response that noted that:

  • The counter-narratives are valid perspectives of corps members, and all voices deserve a chance to be heard.
  • TFA undoubtedly will not agree with every criticism, but TFA is committed to social justice and education equity and, therefore, will consider the emergent themes thoughtfully.
  • TFA values all of the leaders it “creates,” including the ones who are critical of TFA, for they help the organization and society challenge injustice.

Until TFA can write a response that does not try to minimize the counter-narratives and control the narrative about education reform and justice, TFA will run opposite to equity work–work that extinguishes the dominative narrative running through our minds, hearts, communities, schools, and systems.  In attempting narrative control, TFA actually perpetuates the dominant oppressive narrative it claims to fight; TFA becomes the voice that seeks to control and silence those of us who dare scream out for true justice.

www.amberkkim.com

References

Stanley, C. A. (2007). When counter narratives meet master narratives in the journal editorial-review process.   Educational Researcher, 36(1), 14-24.

TFA’s Rigged Question

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

Not another TFA survey!

Not another TFA survey!

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:

Dear TeachForAmerica,

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.

Outsized Influence

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.

Solutions

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.

Welcome

http://www.bigpicture.org/2008/10/metwest/

Fieldston Lower School

About

Amber K. Kim, Ph.D.

ATL 2001

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.

Equity in Education is Not Relative

Recently I was facilitating a professional development session on equity for the staff of a small high school and one topic kept coming up as a possible stumbling block: cultural relativity. Implicit in teachers’ sincere questions and comments was the need to know if I was purporting that all cultural norms are okay and to be tolerated in an educational environment. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, some people wanted to know if I expected them to “teach” students that all values, beliefs, actions, and goals are legitimate. The question raised was, “Are educators supposed to remain neutral about what is right and proper and, therefore, risk not teaching students the knowledge, skills, and ways of being that will find them success in this American Dominant Culture?” Upon some deep reflection on this topic, I realize that the issue is not about accepting all cultural differences or being culturally relative. As A. G. Johnson said, “The trouble around difference is really about privilege and power—the existence of privilege and the lopsided distribution of power that keeps it going.”

Equity work is simply not the same as cultural relativity work. Cultural relativity simply says, “There is no right or wrong; all ways of thinking and being can be viewed as valid.” Equity work, on the other hand, says something quite different. Equity work questions consistently and relentlessly:

  • Who is being silenced, devalued, oppressed?
  • Who is being validated, privileged, and placed as superior?
  • How is this being done?
  • What are the unintended messages being sent?
  • Who holds the power?
  • What is the impact?
  • Whose perspectives am I missing?
  • How should I/we respond?
  • How might I/we redress this injustice?

Equity work demands that people apply a critical lens to all situations, interactions, policies, norms, etc.—both personal and institutional. Equity work requires people to be critical of culture, both their own cultures and others’ and not, as some think, to blindly accept ways of being as either as “normal” or “cultural.”

So to be clear, in partnering to do equity work at the school level, I am not asking teachers to believe that “anything goes” and to lower expectations of our culturally and linguistically diverse students. I am not asking teachers to be “culturally relative” and allow for any culture—its values, norms, and ways of being—to go unchecked. Quite the contrary because I am asking teachers to actively critique the cultural norms that dominate a school. I am asking educators to critique their visions of an “excellent education”— the goals, objectives, curriculum, instructional methods, policies, and procedures. I want people, including students and families, to start asking the questions above and the question: “Does an excellent education merely prepare students to succeed in an unjust society, or does it also prepare students to see, respond to, and redress societal injustice?” On answering this question we must be definitive, not relative.

*For more information on preparing culturally responsive and critical educators/students for social justice, please visit: amberkkim.com