The Free Minds, Free People education conference took place this past weekend in Chicago. One of the most talked about events of the conference was a summit held Sunday, organized by Teach for America alumni and other activists and community members in order to discuss their active opposition to TFA. The dissent within TFA has been rising for some time now, and since The American Prospect published a story about TFA’s internal feuding last week, people have begun to refer to the matter as a ‘TFA Civil War.’ It’s catchy, sure, and has a nice ring to it that may attract media and bolster people’s energy, but is it really a good idea to refer to internal TFA opposition as a civil war?
If this opposition truly is a civil war, then it is important to look at the platforms of both armies. TFA is a program that sends mostly recent college graduates into inner city schools to teach for two years. The TFA Institute is a 5-week program that is supposed to train these young people to teach and handle the difficulties that they will encounter in underprivileged school communities. The idea is to put fresh, young talent into underprivileged classrooms in order to help students learn and introduce teachers to the realities of the classroom.
Most opposition to TFA is based on the assertion that there is very little emphasis on the ‘to help students learn’ part of that sentence. Challengers of TFA claim that the TFA program is fundamentally flawed in this respect. Firstly, many people guffaw at the claim that a 5-week Institute can prepare inexperienced college graduates for how to teach children, and underprivileged ones at that. Secondly, the program is designed to force members to teach at these underprivileged schools for two years, after which they are exhausted and more than happy to find new jobs teaching in schools with more resources and less poverty. This causes instability in poverty-stricken schools, and more importantly, infuses the lives of children with even more instability than already exists. With teachers coming in and out of schools every two years, it is difficult to create a stable school community that can help stabilize students who have no stable environment outside of the school setting.
Until now, most of the opposition to TFA has been publicized through the use of sarcasm and bitter humor. The well-known humor newspaper The Onion recently published a point/counterpoint piece that was clearly aimed at programs like TFA; although it did not name anyone or any program in particular, it does reference the insufficiency of a “five-week training program,” a statement obviously directed at TFA. The point piece is entitled ‘My Year Volunteering As A Teacher Helped Educate A New Generation of Underprivileged Kids,’ which comes from the perspective of a fictional volunteer teacher who saccharinely and proudly asserts that after just one year, she was able to “connect with them and fully understand their backgrounds and help them become the leaders of tomorrow.” The counterpoint, entitled ‘Can We Please, Just Once, Have A Real Teacher?’ is written by a fictional fourth-grader who makes several compelling arguments, notably much more sincere and provocative than the teacher. He says:
Just once, it would be nice to walk into a classroom and see a teacher who has a real, honest-to-God degree in education and not a twenty-something English graduate trying to bolster a middling GPA and a sparse law school application. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a qualified educator who has experience standing up in front of a classroom and isn’t desperately trying to prove to herself that she’s a good person.
This piece is now being joined by another phenomenon, @ChadForAmerica, a Twitter personality who publishes satirical tweets based on the inspiration that TFA claims to offer, such as his tweet:
This tweet comes from a blog post written by Gary Rubinstein, ‘Hanging Chad,’ in which Rubinstein (who happens to be a TFA alumnus who questions the program’s effectiveness) writes that Chad’s tweets are examples of unacceptable behavior that TFA is encouraging in its trainees. To be fair, it seems questionable whether or not Rubinstein understands the satirical nature of @ChadForAmerica.
The fact that so much of the opposition to TFA up to this point has taken the form of satire is an interesting phenomenon. Sadly, it is frequently humor more than anything that gets people to focus their attention on the ridiculousness and simultaneous realness of current events (Tina Fey’s word-for-word imitation of Sarah Palin’s interview with Katie Couric, anyone?). Satire, however politicized and pointedly challenging, is not a sign of civil war. Satire takes place when people are in disbelief, unready to do the hard work required to establish change but, nevertheless, unwilling to let their voices go unheard. It is my belief that satire marks the approaching end of the calm before the storm.
The summit at the Free Minds, Free People conference is far from satire. This is arguably the first serious and wide-scale action that TFA opponents have organized. For those who believe the TFA is, in fact, having a civil war, then this summit may prove to be preparation for the first battle. If their plan is to make this a civil war within TFA, then alumni will prove to be a separate entity from TFA. They will need to distance themselves from the corps while still managing to use their experiences in TFA to advance their arguments.
But is distancing themselves from TFA the best method of effective action? Civil war requires this distance, but civil war does not allow open and potentially productive communication between the organization and its opposition. As we have seen so much this year, with students around the country deaffiiliating from Students for Education Reform, with grassroots ‘traditionalists’ increasingly differentiating themselves from corporate ‘reformers,’ more and more education activists are disassociating themselves from their large-scale, corporate counterparts, thereby destroying the opportunity to work with these organizations and try to affect change within them. I do recognize n many cases, it has proven impossible to change the organization from within, and the underdog has no option but to break free of its leash (I know this from my experience with the UChicago’s SFER deaffiliation).
So, the question remains: will TFA opponents follow suit and commence a full-fledged civil war? I don’t think they have yet, but they may soon. In doing so, they will either force TFA to change its ways or completely alienate themselves from the people with the power and wealth to change the status quo. At this point, I think it’s a 50-50 chance it would go either way. Before declaring full-on civil war, I would suggest that TFA opponents take a moment to consider a wise adage:
Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.