TFA Critic NOT a Hater

Never assume that every critic is a hater. Not everyone is hating on you. Some people are telling you truth.

Despite the fact that I am very critical of TFA’s mission, approach, and how it responds to criticism from alum and concerned stakeholders, I still believe that because I am an alum (ATL 2001), I am TFA.  Furthermore, there are many like me that are TFA, in some way, but are also very critical of TFA and its impact. We are trying to tell the truth about TFA and challenge TFA’s dominant narrative. We are leaders working for education equity by researching, writing, publishing, organizing, and facilitating community and political action; yet, because we are critical of TFA and the reform movement, we are silenced by TFA and called “Haters” and “Traitors.” We are not applauded in One Day, the alumni magazine, or placed on countless panels at TFA events (like golden boy Michael Johnston). Instead, we are refuted, minimized, and deemed as enemies of the cause (i.e. an excellent education for all children). Our work and our empirical research findings are characterized by TFA and its supporters as invalid and “misconceptions” that are “no longer true.” Furthermore, we are never given space–physical or otherwise–to be critical of and vocal about the mistakes we believe our organization is making and the harm that it is doing to students, communities, corps members and education reform in general. There are never any sessions or sanctioned spaces for leaders like us, and we are TFA too!

This February, though, at TFA’s 25th anniversary summit in Washington DC, I will be facilitating a sanctioned space for critics of TFA. The “Critics Not Haters” brunch will be held on Sunday, February 7 from 9 to 11am.  All critical Summit participants are welcome to come and process their experiences at the Summit as well as critique TFA in general. This brunch came about after several deep conversations with TFA National staff. I requested space for all TFA alums, including critical alums, to collaborate and discuss perspectives that are important to them. This brunch is a space for TFA critics to build community, make connections, and hear numerous TFA counter-stories.

In case you’re wondering about my lens and critical perspective on TFA, I have published my counternarrative in the book, Teach for America Counter-narratives: Alumni Speak Up and Speak Out. I have reviewed and promoted Sarah Matsui’s book, Learning from Counternarratives in Teach for America. I have also written about my disappointment and anger with TFA’s public response which sought to minimize and discredit the counternarratives of people who had the courage to speak truth to power, Opposite of Equity: TFA Attempts Narrative Control.

IT_hater

In addition to these pieces, it is important for me to state that I am very critical of how TFA has constructed, promoted, and empowered a very narrow, hegemonic definition of an “excellent education.” I am critical of the fact that TFA (often covertly) proclaims that an excellent education for all children is simply the content of the education that has historically been provided to and reserved for affluent, White children rather than an education that prepares students to challenge the deep injustices that undergird our society.  I believe that TFA (covertly and overtly) pushes its corps members to deliver–unapologetically and uncritically–that kind of “rigorous,” “No Excuses” education to the students they serve while in TFA. Then, because of their (limited) experience in TFA, corps members go on to promote, teach in, lead, and create “No Excuses” schools where it is normal to hear “Voices off!” commanded or to see black and brown students marching in straight, silent lines to class. Schools where teachers are armed with their copies of Teach Like a Champion and equipped with robotic and patronizing “behavior narration” in order to improve test scores. Test score equity, though, is NOT equity when the means and methods used to achieve equal test scores are dehumanizing and rely on controlling the bodies, voices, and minds of other people’s children. In his video Education for Liberation Wisdom Amouzou (a TFA alum and former STRIVE teacher) explains why these No Excuses school are not equity-driven:

“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.”

 

TFA’s creation of this definition of excellence may have been unintentional or even well-intentioned; TFA’s promotion of and alliance with these methods and No Excuses Charters (no matter how covert), however, is intentional and consistent. TFA tries to appear neutral and denies any formal connection, but the ties between TFA and the reform movement are evident and strong.  TFA does not take any responsibility for the test-score obsessed, compliance-driven machine it has put in motion, nor does it own the harm that it does to students and the communities it purports to serve. So, yes, TFA makes me think critically. It makes me angry, makes me sad, makes me fight, makes me speak out, but it does not make me a hater.

For more information on Amber, visit www.amberkkim.com .

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Silent Hallways are Unjust: Let Students Speak!

I was recently visiting a charter middle school that enforces silent hallways during passing periods–in addition to following lines taped on the floor and SLANT in quiet classrooms (quiet except for teacher behavior narration). Immediately I was shocked and wondered how it was possible for a group of highly educated and committed (mostly white) educators to convince themselves that deliberately silencing students of color and low socio economic status in the name of social justice is equity? Our students are human beings with the human need to socialize, communicate, and express themselves. Furthermore, our urban students are people who consistently experience personal and systemic oppression; therefore, they have a need to talk to process their common experiences and to speak out against the racism, classism, sexism, they endure. The silencing of students is oppressive and dehumanizing. In the moment that I saw young Black and Brown students walking silently in lines, it seemed obvious to me that this expectation sickeningly mirrors the historical tactics of dictators and systems of oppression. Oppressive regimes maintain dominance by enforcing silence—they take away the voice of the oppressed and tell them that it is for their own good.

Given the oppressive history of forced silence, I became curious and determined to find out “Why?” I asked the school leader and was told, “Silence in the halls increases the time on task in the classroom. We do not have to fight with the kids to get them settled down. These kids are so behind, we need all of the time on task we can get…we have a mission: all kids college ready!”

The mission of the school is touted as one of educational equity. All kids, regardless of race or class, will have the option to attend college when they graduate. And admittedly, in comparison, most district schools in this area do not prepare students academically, and four-year colleges are not an option when/if students graduate. But at what point is the cost of a “college-ready-excellent-education” too high? And why must kids of color and low socio-economic status be silenced in order to attain an excellent education? Is it not possible for a group of very intelligent, hard working, thoughtful, committed educators to give students the skills they need without forcing them to comply with rigid silence rules?

Some educators argue that they are providing students with more time on task and an excellent education that will eventually give their students access to the dominant culture and power in society. The teachers believe that once their students have power, they can use it to change the system. I wonder, however, how will a child that grows up silent, know how to speak up and out if s/he does not practice in her/his formative years? How will a student even know what to speak against if s/he is not taught to see oppression or allowed to question the people of power? If students gain access to the dominant culture, will they have learned anything in school that encourages and empowers them to recognize, respond to, and redress injustice? Or will they have learned to stay silent for success?

I know middle school kids are talkative, hard to settle down, squirrely at times. I taught middle school in Atlanta, GA. I know that silence may increase time on task and “learning” in the classroom. So, too, perhaps do uniforms, SLANT, and other norms rooted in efficiency and equality—everyone doing the same thing, at the same time, in the same way for the sake of success—but the cost is too high. I would not want to be educated that way. I would not want my children to be educated that way. I do not want other children educated that way. The sad part, though, is my children and I have choice. We can go to a school that will provide an excellent education without being silenced.

Children in some communities only have two choices: a poorly performing, low-expectation holding, district school—OR—a high performing, highly compliance-driven, silent-hallway-having charter or district “turnaround” school. End of choices. Therefore, do not mistake a parent’s choice to send her child to a silent school as consent. Many parents of color do not agree with mostly white people forcing their children to be silent. Be sure that parents of color and those living in poverty are having their own conversations in their homes with their children.  They say, “I know the teachers tell you to be silent son, but one day, when it is safe, scream…say it loudly and proudly that you are not someone to be silenced! Share your lived experience. Racism is real. Poverty is real. Your pain is real. Your strength is real too. You are strong. You are smart. You are incredible with stories of joy to share. You have something to say and you will say it, one day.”

Let’s hope that, though, when our students of color and/or low socio-economic status grow up, the voices from home are louder in their heads than the rule at school. And, finally, let’s just hope that our students of color have that voice at home and that it wasn’t silenced during middle school, never to surface again.

*Once oppressive curriculum, instruction practices, policies, and procedures are exposed they must thoughtfully and intentionally be undone with a community of stakeholders armed with equity literacy.  “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” A. Einstein. For more information on preparing culturally responsive and critical educators/students for social justice, please visit: amberkkim.com.