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New book offers insider perspectives of Teach for America

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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IMAGE: The new book, "Teach for America Counter-Narratives: Alumni Speak Up and Speak Out, " was published by the Peter Lang Publishing Group. view more

Credit: Courtesy Peter Lang

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Jameson Brewer graduated from Valdosta State University with a degree in education in December 2008, just as the U.S. economy tumbled into the Great Recession. When the recession, coupled with Brewer's limited experience as a student teacher, stymied his efforts to find a teaching position, he eventually signed on with the alternative certification program Teach for America, hoping the two-year commitment would provide the experience he needed to jumpstart his career.

While it did lead to a two-year teaching position in Atlanta Public Schools and, ultimately, to doctoral study in education policy at the University of Illinois, Brewer's experience with TFA provided much more: a front-lines perspective of neoliberal education reform - and the inspiration for the new book "Teach for America Counter-Narratives: Alumni Speak Up and Speak Out," which Brewer co-edited.

In the book, 19 former corps members, a former staff member, and education scholar Barbara Torre Veltri, a professor at Northern Arizona State University whose research interests include TFA, provide insider perspectives on the organization's recruitment and training strategies, approach to diversity and corporate culture.

The book provides a sometimes-troubling look inside the nonprofit organization, which recruits the "best and brightest" among each year's crop of college graduates to teach in mostly low-income, minority schools.

Originally conceived as a means of ameliorating the national teacher shortage of the late 1980s, TFA has evolved into a multinational political machine supported by several philanthropic foundations, and is influencing education policy globally and installing its alumni in policy and school administration positions, Brewer wrote.

TFA's evolution from a "humble nonprofit" to a multimillion-dollar "elitist corporate behemoth" - as former staff member Wendy Chovnick describes the group - has been fueled by the myth that public education is failing, the fear that the nation is falling behind its industrialized peers and the trend toward blaming teachers for these problems, Brewer said.

Corps members - the majority of whom don't have degrees in education or training as teachers - undergo a five-week induction program called Summer Institute, which provides only 18 hours of actual teacher training.

In effect, TFA is deprofessionalizing the teaching profession, said Brewer, who is the associate director of the Forum on the Future of Public Education at Illinois.

Because TFA corps members can be paid less than traditionally trained teachers, some cash-strapped school districts are replacing veteran teachers with less expensive, less experienced TFA corps members, according to Brewer.

Like No Child Left Behind, TFA's instructional philosophy centers on teaching to the test - called "backward planning," in TFA terminology, Brewer said.

Corps members are told that their students will excel under TFA's pedagogical model if these fledgling educators work hard enough and believe in their students. That "hyperaccountability" philosophy fosters feelings of failure, frustration and rapid burnout among corps members when students' achievement falls short, Brewer wrote.

"TFA's system doesn't work, and I think the experiences of the alumni in the book tell that story," Brewer said.

When Brewer began teaching full time in Atlanta after Summer Institute, he said he flatly refused to follow TFA's pedagogical model. Nevertheless, his TFA program director and the regional office showcased him as a success to the policymakers and potential corporate sponsors brought to observe him in the classroom.

Sarah Ishmael, an Afro-Caribbean woman and first-generation American, as well as other corps members of color who contributed papers for the book, contend that TFA's perfunctory diversity training fails to ensure that its army of corps members - most of whom are white - have the cultural competence to work with the mostly low-income, minority communities in which they teach.

Ishmael suggests that TFA perpetuates existing societal inequities by providing a steppingstone to academic and social advancement opportunities for its alumni - opportunities that the students they teach most likely will never have.

Although press coverage of the group has been largely positive, Veltri wrote that TFA resists criticism and exists in an "echo chamber" - ignoring or silencing the corps members, alumni and former staff members who question its ideologies and practices. Chovnick reached similar conclusions during her three-year tenure as chief of staff to TFA's executive director in Phoenix.

Brewer first aired his criticisms of TFA as a guest blogger for Education Week in 2012, shortly before concluding his two-year service and teaching position in Atlanta. That blog post prompted a flurry of messages from former corps members, which inspired Brewer to collect narratives by TFA alumni and compile them into a book.

"We wanted the book to be accessible and readable by a very wide audience - academics, parents, prospective corps members, alumni, principals and school board leaders who are making decisions about whether to contract with this organization," Brewer said.

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Published by Peter Lang, the book was co-edited by Kathleen P. deMarrais, a professor and the head of the department of lifelong education, administration and policy at the University of Georgia.

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