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Is @TeachForAmerica pimping poverty?

Few would argue that educational inequity is not of grave national and international concern. Much less widely understood is how educational inequity is tied to societal inequity, and then, following that, how to alter these structures, particularly in times of widening gaps between the wealthy, and well, everyone else. Teach for America has an explicitly articulated goal and theory of change (Tuck, 2009) for transforming education, in the video above and many other freely available sources. This explicitness allows the thousands affected by this fast-track teacher training program to engage with what the approach affords and what it obscures.

Through its own website and pro forma recruitment letters, Teach for America “is working to end educational inequity by recruiting outstanding college graduates, from all majors, to teach for two years in low-income communities.” TFA also frequently cites a statistic that only one in ten children growing up in poverty will graduate from college.

TFA is both right and wrong. Poverty and the growing chasm between the wealthy and the rest of the population is intricately connected to educational outcomes. In fact, statistically speaking, the best predictor of educational attainment has long been and unfortunately remains, not motivation, individual ability, or even grit, but socioeconomic status and the education level of students’ parents, not their teachers. In other words, as much as it may be abrasive to national discourses that position individual effort as pivotal to success, trends in educational attainment have long shown that the protection afforded by wealth and the risks brought by poverty are far more impactful on well-being in schools and society. So while TFA is absolutely correct in naming poverty as a key problem, it is an incomplete naming that does not situate how poverty impacts educational opportunity and attainment. This omission then leads to TFA’s harmful approach.

TFA’s theory of change relative to the long-standing structure of societal inequity is that contact between differently located individuals will alter societal structures. In TFA’s own words, by putting college graduates “who care deeply, have perseverance, grit and the skills” in teaching positions in low-income communities, TFA aims to alter educational inequity. It is important to note that these college graduates are from the nation’s most selective and typically predominantly white, elite institutions of higher education. This approach relies on layered sets of assumptions about who can teach teach, the presumptive inability or lack of desire to do so from longstanding educators, and the minimally contradictory purposes of a privatized interest working for the public good. Further, TFA concerningly remains silent on how this approach can impact the economic stratification that is so closely aligned with educational inequity. The materials use poverty as a frame for the approach and then move to the benefits and professional enjoyment experienced by TFA corps members.

Digging a bit deeper into the patterns that lead to educational attainment, TFA puts into contact those whose success has been most guaranteed by schooling with those whose failure is relatedly also architectured in schooling. TFA, then, is proffering a theory of change that is individualistic for structural phenomenon. By putting those who have been successful in contact with those who are structurally marginalized, the entire structure of economic stratification, as manifested in education, is meant to be agitated. This is offered, with no sensed irony, in a nation whose very establishment and structure relied on both institutionalized racism and capitalism to stratify society. In this context of institutionalized racism, the most recent efforts by TFA to situate its alternative fast-track approach to teacher education as a way to “diversify” the teaching profession are minimally tone-deaf and likely moreso opportunistic messaging.

Societal inequities have persisted for so long, in part, because they are explained away or justified by commonly held narratives. Through the design of TFA, we see a gesture to systemic inequity coupled with an approach that works from the narrative of individualistic merit and zeal. This same narrative undergirds research into characteristics like grit, studying those whose have been successful and then downward applying that as deficit to those who are marginalized in schooling and other sectors in society. Without a consistent political economic analysis of the intricacies of schooling and society, particularly within a society formed through racist capitalism, justificatory narratives of individualism and meritocracy will only reseat inequity. While it may not be reasonable to expect that TFA alter long-standing economic and racial stratification, it invites this accountability through its mission. It also certainly invites inquiry into the material effects it has had through enacting its mission.

Beyond obscuring long-standing, entrenched structures of economic inequity, TFA’s approach enacts what geographer David Harvey (2004) has named as the trend of contemporary capitalism: accumulation through dispossession. At its core, accumulation through dispossession is the collection and control of privatized resources in the hands of a few. As part of the accumulation, those few rely on the relative risk, unemployment, and harm to a much large portion of the population. TFA evinces accumulation through dispossession by the procurement of public funding for privatized education, the displacement of teachers, and offers little evidence of educational betterment where its teachers are placed (Vasquez Heilig and Jez, 2014). Schools and communities, already vulneribilized through intertwined sets of housing, policing, education, and employment practices and policies are further destabilized by the infusion of temporary, marginally trained new teachers. As scholar Michael Dumas has analyzed, such approaches unproblematically rely on the ‘suffering of Black students’ for the promulgation of racism-blind policies.

But what about the good, even noble, intentions to alter inequity in education and society? As I have written elsewhere (Patel, forthcoming), I both assume and disregard, or at least hold at bay, good intentions. Without a doubt, having good intentions is a moral imperative. However, in the field of education, extant material harm has been obscured through the pervasive framing of well-intentioned educators and policies.

Intentions cannot and should not stand alone, as they are always enacted with material effects. I have no doubt that the intentional origins of TFA were to alter the policy structures and practices that have long stratified economic and educational outcomes. Those intentions can only speak tangentially and in limited fashion to the material impacts. The bare facts of this now nearly 25 year old program raise concerning questions for the claims and approaches it maintains in its recruitment and public relations materials that pimp poverty. The accumulation of societal status for TFA founders and members must be held in question relative to the growing dispossession in the communities it claims to serve, including the racially minoritized recruits it has pursued in the wake of criticism of a largely white corps. These intentions and material impacts must be understood in the sociopolitical history of education, which has long acted as a source of white property (Harris, 1993). For accountability cuts both ways.

Dr. Leigh Patel blogs at Decolonizing Educational Research

For all of Cloaking Inequity’s posts on Teach For America click here.

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About leighpatel (1 Article)
educator, sociologist, writer
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