A Teach First Primer: The American Experience

What follows is a summary of the concerns raised by Andrew Hartman (@HartmanAndrew), teacher of history at Illinois State University and author of Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School, regarding the alternative teacher certification organisation Teach For America.


Teach For America (TFA) provides the model for Teach First in the UK and given that TFA has been running since 1989, the American experience provides a much needed insight into the pitfalls of such programmes.

What Hartman has to say and its direct relevance to Teach First ought also to act as a counterbalance to the current lack of criticism that Teach First has experienced in the mainstream UK press, a telling lack of criticism that echoes what Hartman has to say about the American reaction to TFA (“From its inception, the media anointed TFA the savior of American education. Prior to a single corps member stepping foot in a classroom…”).

Hartman writes:

“TFA, suitably representative of the liberal education reform more generally, underwrites, intentionally or not, the conservative assumptions of the education reform movement:

– that teacher’s unions serve as barriers to quality education;

– that testing is the best way to assess quality education;

– that educating poor children is best done by institutionalizing them;

– that meritocracy is an end-in-itself;

– that social class is an unimportant variable in education reform;

– that education policy is best made by evading politics proper;

– and that faith in public school teachers is misplaced.

He continues:

1. Take the rationale that TFA would enhance the image of the teaching profession. On the contrary, the only brand TFA endows with an “aura of status and selectivity” is its own.

The more exclusive TFA becomes, the more ordinary regular teachers seem.

2. The second justification for TFA—that it exists to supply good teachers to schools where few venture to work—has also proven questionable.

After twenty years of sending academically gifted but untrained college graduates into the nation’s toughest schools, the evidence regarding TFA corps member effectiveness is in, and it is decidedly mixed.

TFA’s vaunted thirty-day summer institute—TFA “boot camp”—is no replacement for the preparation given future teachers at traditional colleges of education.

3. The third premise for TFA founder Wendy Kopp’s national teacher corps—that it would “create a leadership force for long-term change” in how the nation’s least privileged students are schooled—has been the most destructive. Such destructiveness is directly related to Kopp’s success in attaching TFA to the education reform movement.

“results,” or rather, academic improvement, act more like a fig leaf, especially in light of numerous recent studies that show charter schools, taken on the whole, actually do a worse job of educating students than regular public schools.

4. crushing teacher’s unions—the real meaning behind Kopp’s “flexibility” euphemism—has become the ultimate end of the education reform movement. This cannot be emphasized enough: the precipitous growth of charter schools and the TFA insurgency are part and parcel precisely because both cohere with the larger push to marginalize teacher’s unions.

5. The TFA insurgency has, from its inception, sold education reform as above politics. The idea is to support ideas that work, plain and simple, no matter their source. But the biography of Michelle Rhee, the prototypical TFA corps member-turned-reformer and the most divisive person in the education reform movement, defies such anti-political posturing.

6. From its origins, the TFA-led movement to improve the teacher force has aligned itself with efforts to expand the role of high-stakes standardized testing in education.

TFA insurgents support standardized testing not only because they believe it ensures accountability. They also herald testing because it provides evidence that their efforts are working.

In sum, the TFA insurgency’s singular success has been to empower those best at gaming the system.

7. In contrast to such “success,” the TFA insurgency has failed to dent educational inequality. This comes as no surprise to anyone with the faintest grasp of the tight correlation between economic and educational inequality: TFA does nothing to address the former while spinning its wheels on the latter.

8. TFA exists for nothing if not for adjusting poor children to the regime otherwise known as the American meritocracy.

In working to perfect their approach to education, TFA insurgents miss the forest for the trees. They fail to ask big-picture questions

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