Teach for America: The Story of Misinformation


What do the following have in common?

• Three high-quality teachers in a row can increase student achievement and even life-long earning. [1]

• Teachers are the single-most important factor in student learning. [2]

• U.S. students sit in the middle of the pack in international rankings of standardized test scores. [3]

• On average, Teach for America (TFA) corps members stay in the classroom for eight years.

• Santa Claus. [4]

The answer: All of the above are widely believed, based in some kernel of evidence, but on the whole are greatly distorted or misleading.

But once an idea that seems true enters the public consciousness, it is nearly impossible to discredit. And those who bravely try to discredit the misinformation are often themselves ripe for ridicule.

And that brings us to this from Anthony Cody at his Education Week blog, Living in Dialogue (December 12, 2012):

“I am afraid I am a bit bothered by the dance we are being led on this week by Teach For America. First, in an interview on the Huffington Post, TFA founder and CEO Wendy Kopp states, unequivocally, the following: ‘On average, our corps members stay in the classroom for eight years.’”

Cody’s challenge to Kopp’s claim sparked a brief Twitter exchange among Nancy Flanagan, Jersey Jazzman, EduShyster, Cody, and me. That mini-dialogue then prompted Matthew DiCarlo to ask, “She cited a bush league estimate in an interview. She shouldn’t have used it. Isn’t that end of story?”; and then note: “From what I’ve seen, gentlemen, you don’t ‘just accept’ much of anything TFA says!”

To answer DiCarlo (who, along with Bruce Baker, is among the best and most careful with education data and research), no, this is not the end of the story, and let me explain why.

“Missionary Zeal” and the Death of Evidence by Advocacy

I want to take DiCarlo’s question and possible implication to its most extreme conclusion: Are some educators and scholars simply attacking TFA, regardless of the credibility of the program, its leaders, the evidence, or their corp members? (And let’s acknowledge the ever-present straw man: Are educators and scholars simply attacking TFA to protect the status quo?)

Let me speak for myself here, but I think this is a valid answer for many educators and scholars: No.

As with Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools, I have taken an evidence-based and philosophical stance against TFA because the organization represents everything that is wrong with education reform. Here, I want to outline that argument:

• TFA is explicitly a leadership building program (as stated by TFA itself), and as such, is essentially using teaching and marginalized students to give their privileged corp members exposure to poverty and inequity. I find that entire process unethical, unprofessional, and classist.

• TFA contributes directly and indirectly to de-professionalizing teaching further by discrediting education as a field of study (with the few-weeks-in-the-summer model).

• TFA represents current education reform’s failure to match solutions with problems. TFA provides inexperienced and unqualified teachers for marginalized populations of students who are disproportionately now (and historically have been) being taught by inexperienced and unqualified teachers.

• TFA champions the “missionary zeal” of its leaders and corp members, but that “zeal” is the problem with TFA, not the benefit they claim. That “missionary” spirit is paternalistic in nature and it often clouds the ability of leaders or corp members to question their missions or their impact, resulting in careless claims such as the one Cody has challenged by Kopp. TFA fails this warning from Thomas Jefferson: “The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees, in every object, only the traits which favor that theory.” [5]

• TFA perpetuates the decline of the American worker, specifically reducing the profession of teaching to a service industry—teachers as perpetually interchangeable workers. The unspoken appeal of TFA for many political leaders is that the organization provides an endless stream of inexpensive workers.

• TFA represents and perpetuates the “cult of personality” narrative that devalues expertise and experience in professions (for example, Kopp and Michelle Rhee).

• TFA is a corporate model built on experimenting with “other people’s children” (Lisa Delpit). I have made this challenge before, and not a single person has taken it or explained why:

With these facts in mind, I suggest that we test the new reformers’ commitment to TFA and KIPP. How?

Let’s fully fund TFA and KIPP initiatives, but only if TFA and KIPP serve top students, releasing the most experienced and well-qualified teachers to teach students living in poverty, students of color, and students speaking home languages other than English.

Currently, the new reformers support TFA and KIPP as long as they serve other people’s children. I suspect if TFA and KIPP suddenly become the norm for a different population of children, the tune from the top will change.

• TFA keeps the reform gaze focused entirely on in-school (and even in-classroom) reform, distracting us from the need to couch in-school (and in-classroom) reform inside social reform, all of which must be shifted from an accountability paradigm to an equity and opportunity paradigm.

• TFA further devalues the potential of the commons, of public institutions that are routinely misrepresented as failures. Idealizing the private, just as idealizing the public, is a failure of either/or thinking.

• TFA feeds the silver-bullet, “miracle” mentality of reform, further guaranteeing failure of any reforms.

• TFA represents the essential flaw of advocacy as a paradigm for the public good. The competition for customers often leads to distorted claims and manipulations simply for the sake of survival.

Like much of the failed education reform agenda over the past thirty years, based on an accountability model, TFA represents that good intentions, bright people, and public and political enthusiasm do not lead to clearly identifying problems and then shaping appropriate solutions.

If Kopp’s recent claim was in fact just carelessness, that does not discount the need to be vigilant about data, claims, and core commitments. Somewhere soon, and often, others will quote and cite Kopp’s claim as fact, the same way the bulleted points at the beginning of this commentary are repeated as if fact. And those misrepresentations will be used to perpetuate more of the same misguided reform that is causing far more harm than good for students and our society.

The story of misinformation, I fear, will never end.


[1] The widely publicized and misleading/misinterpreted Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff study, once reviewed, didn’t succeed in supporting the claims made in the report or by the media. As is typical, however, the initial misrepresentation receives a great deal of distorted press while the reviews receive almost no coverage.

[2] The work of David Berliner, among others, has cataloged the overwhelming evidence that measurable student outcomes are primarily correlated with out-of-school factors, dwarfing the impact of teacher quality. But even qualifying this “truism” as “teachers are the most important in-school factor in student outcomes” is misleading, as Aaron Pallas explains.

[3] Gerald Bracey offered repeated efforts to discredit international comparisons and ranking by test data, but few heeded his warning, and the rankings persist. What is not examined or addressed very often in the media and by political leadership is that careful and contextualized international rankings tend to paint an entirely different picture of U.S. student achievement, as exemplified by Riddile.

[4] One of the most sobering moments of parenthood for me was the day my daughter found one of her teeth, determined that the Tooth Fairy was a scam, and then confronted me with her realization. I confessed because she asked, “Why did y’all lie to me?” This was followed by her making the same connection with Santa Claus. I decided then what I already suspected: Don’t lie to children*. [*Hint to Kopp and other education reformers: Be careful what you claim because somebody somewhere who takes evidence seriously is listening and being held accountable is painful when you don't play fair with your claims.]

[5] This rose-colored-glasses flaw is the grounding of critical pedagogy that warns against allowing any belief to become sacred, blinding, something that can’t be challenged.

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P.L. Thomas

Paul Thomas, Associate Professor of Education, taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. Recent books include Parental Choice?: A Critical Reconsideration of Choice and the Debate about Choice (Information Age Publishing, 2010) and 21st Century Literacy: If We Are Scripted, Are We Literate? (Springer, 2009) co-authored with Renita Schmidt. He maintains a blog addressing the role of poverty in education: http://livinglearninginpoverty.blogspot.com/. His teaching and scholarship focus on literacy and the impact of poverty on education, as well as confronting the political dynamics influencing public education in the U.S. His work can be followed at http://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com.