You might think that if I could defend Crossfire, I could defend virtually anything, no matter how odious. Well, you might just be right, because here I am to offer a defense (of sorts) of…Teach for America! Yes, it’s true. Please, unclutch your pearls. Actually, what I offer is less a defense and more of a problematization of the problematizers.
Teach for America has suddenly and very visibly fallen from grace, or at least fallen from the good graces of progressive cultural tastemakers. Critiques of TFA have recently appeared in Slate, the Atlantic, and Education Week. The Education Week piece captures the gist of the criticism when its author, John Wilson, writes that “there is a general consensus that TFA is not the answer to teacher shortages, closing achievement gaps, or eliminating poverty in this country.” I don’t doubt that TFA is not capable of, on its own, accomplishing any of these lofty – some might say utopian – goals. But is the program’s inability to do the impossible reason for trashing it? Yes, a critic might say, if, in addition to failing to produce dramatically good outcomes, TFA is actively producing bad outcomes. And if TFA is indeed malignant, the results of this malignancy are far more concerning then the results of a poor strategy for producing a better mousetrap. After all, there are young, helpless, impressionable children involved here.
What exactly makes TFA so malignant in the eyes of its critics? Catherine Michna’s Slate piece speaks to two of the big critiques – the argument that TFA participants don’t receive enough training and the related claim that TFA is in bed with objectionable corporate school reform efforts. For Michna, a former TFA participant, raw, untrained TFA alums from backgrounds very different from those of their students are poor substitutes for the experienced, unionized teachers who are more deeply immersed in the communities in which they teach. I’m no expert on the optimal amount or style of training that teachers should receive. Former participants like Michna undoubtedly have much more insightful perspectives on that issue than I do. However, I do feel qualified to point out the relevance of the TFA wars to a tension I see at work in progressive social change more generally. On the one hand, progressives want to recognize and work to address injustices visited upon those who do not have the privileges of social class, race, and educational attainment that they enjoy. But they also want to respect the agency and dignity of those who suffer injustice. They don’t want to be seen as claiming that the adoption of upper middle class White culture is the cure of all ills. Hence the disdain directed toward the notion of “white men saving brown women from brown men.” In the eyes of its critics, I suspect, TFA smacks of “white yuppies saving brown children from unionized brown teachers.”
Even if TFA were to fold tomorrow, those seeking to deal with educational divides in our country will inevitably confront this tricky issue. It’s easy to see the flaws in taking extreme positions – ignoring injustice entirely or, conversely, ignoring the agency and capability of those suffering injustice entirely. But striking the right balance can be difficult, if not in theory, then certainly in practice.