Teach for America's truth problem: TFA advocates aren't being honest about education reform, their own agenda
Howard Dean had an epiphany.
As he described in his recent post for Salon, when he toured a high school in the Ninth Ward New Orleans, where his son was serving as a Teach for America corps member, he happened to scan some writing assignment the ninth-grade students in his son's class had produced. He was, in his words, "enraged."
"It dawned on me that nearly every young person in his classroom was functionally illiterate," he recalls.
Since that day, Dean has been "an advocate for Teach for America and public not-for-profit charter schools," he explains.
We've seen this before.
The Narrative of "Reform"
When "Waiting for Superman," the film documentary about charter schools in New York City, debuted in 2010, director Davis Guggenheim was asked in a "celebrity interview" what motivated him to make the film. He replied, "I was packing my kids up in my minivan and taking them to school with juice boxes and backpacks. Out of the corner of my eye, I started to see the local public schools that I was driving by. And it started to haunt me that my kids whom I send to private school were having a great education, but the kids in my own neighborhood were not."
These sorts of inspirations are what drive advocates for what's become known as "education reform." "Waiting for Superman" – a movie about education crusaders Michelle Rhee and Geoffrey Canada vying against teachers' union leader Randi Weingarten over the education future of poor, urban children of color – established a compelling and emotional narrative for a debate about public education policy.
The narrative casts specific policy measures, such as charter schools and TFA, as being "about the kids," as Guggenheim phrased it in his interview, and advocates for these measures are invariably "doing incredible work for the kids."
Jeff Bryant is Director of the Education Opportunity Network, a partnership effort of the Institute for America's Future and the Opportunity to Learn Campaign. Jeff owns a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, N.C., and has written extensively about public education policy.