Two Years of Magical Thinking
An Examination of Teach for America as a Reform Model
March 28, 2014
In the 1980s, Wendy Kopp wrote a thesis detailing a reform that could be replicated in public schools across America. Modeling her idea after the Peace Corps, she named it Teach for America. This reform effort is a top down approach, focusing on teacher training and teacher effectiveness. In the twenty years of the organization’s existence, the organization has expanded to nearly fifty urban and rural regions attempting to reform the nation’s lowest performing impoverished schools. However, the success of their reforms remains questionable, even as the organization takes in hundreds of millions dollars each year. This paper examines Teach for America as a reform organization and its efforts in public schools across America.
Philosophy and Vision
The goal of Teach for America is to make education “more equitable” (Lahann and Reagan, 2011, 8). A lofty, progressive ideal, but what does Teach for America believe in that will reach that goal?
The philosophy of Teach for America is deep rooted in neoliberalism (Lahann and Reagan, 2011). Neoliberalism’s philosophy centers on free market philosophies and ideologies. Teach for America believes the government has been inadequate at serving the needs of education, thus perpetuating low achieving schools and creating impoverished communities because of the low achieving schools (Lahann and Reagan, 2011). The organization prides itself on instilling reforms, such as having its members not be part of the union and promoting their recruits post-service careers as education reformers and establishing charter schools. While the organization professes progressive ideals, the reform efforts only give lip service to the ideals of progressivism, neglecting the nuances of the deep roots and structural inequalities outside of the classroom control (Lahann and Reagan, 2011).
Teach for America’s budget consists mainly of private donors, particularly corporate donors in line with the free market tenants predominant in neoliberalism. These donors support the vision of the Teach for America has for schools, especially its efforts to turn public education into a commodity. Backing that vision, Teach for America uses business jargon and terminology throughout its website and documents (Lahann and Reagan, 2011, 18). For example, Teach for America refers to itself as a “brand”, describing their “growth plan” with business jargon like “operating capacity” and “revenue” (Lahann and Reagan, 2011, 18).
Teach for America’s flagship reform effort is their TFA recruits. These recruits are generally soon to be or recently graduated undergraduates, though some graduate students also apply. The recruits serve a two-year placement into a low income, high needs public school, typically in a struggling urban or rural area. Prior to their service,...