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.

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.

Inconsistent Message: TFA, Clint Smith, & Compliance-Driven Charters

TFA sent out this Clint Smith TedTalk to alum today and, at the same time, TFA continues to place large numbers of corps members in schools like KIPP, STRIVE, BES, promote compliance driven behavior management strategies, and tells its corps members to “Teach like a champion.” If TFA placed corps members in these high performing charter networks while also explicitly critiquing these models as schools that are “unjust” and part of the “broken” and “racist” education system, perhaps I would be more understanding. However, TFA places its best and brightest (and its corps members of color) into these schools calling them “excellent” schools providing “excellent educations.” TFA aligns with and supports these charter networks in covert and overt ways. Clint Smith, in contrast, describes his parents as armoring he and his siblings in advice on how to act and be, but “….. not because they thought it would make us better….but simply because they wanted to keep us alive.” Making clear that the rules of White society (and, therefore, the schools lead by White leaders with almost exclusively White teachers serving students of color) are not “excellent” he remarks how sad these ways are because he asks, “What does it do to a child to grow up knowing you cannot simply be a child?” knowing, “….you are not afforded the luxury of making a mistake?”

When TFA supports (explicitly or implicitly), and without public critique, high performing schools that are compliance-driven and demand “100% everyday–No excuses!” what does that cost our children of color? These schools claim to be ending inequity and helping students access the dominant culture (in essence keeping them alive) but they do not offer the explicit critique of society or transparency about power and privilege that Clint Smith’s parent did; instead, they often offer the dominant culture as something that is “better” and “right.” In aligning itself with high performing charters and district schools that indoctrinate, what is TFA teaching its corps members about education equity and, in turn, what is TFA teaching our most marginalized children?

Please, TFA, please consider the ways in which you do not critique these kinds of high performing charters and district schools. Please, TFA, please stop aligning with schools that silence and standardize our children of color and that do not allow our children of color to be children.

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