With the Teach For America (TFA) January application deadline fast approaching, dozens of students across the Claremont Colleges are no doubt considering whether or not they want to have a role in TFA’s continuing mission of closing the “education gap.”
As a general rule, the majority of students who accept the two-year commitment of managing a classroom in one of America’s toughest schools will identify as Democrats. This is not surprising considering that the mind behind the idea, Wendy Kopp, modeled TFA after an organization that is the archetype for liberal volunteerism.
Kopp dreamed up the idea of creating a Peace Corps-like program that catered to low-income American school children while she was writing her senior thesis at Princeton. Her paper soon materialized into a not-for-profit organization that she envisioned “would mobilize some of the most passionate, dedicated members of [her] generation to change the fact that where a child is born in the United States largely determines his or her chances in life.”
Over 20 years later, TFA has graduated 24,000 corps members and has touched more than three million children. Its dream of reforming the education system and focusing on troubled minority youth has won it accolades from the liberal royalty, including President Barack Obama, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), Malcolm Gladwell, Gloria Steinem, and TFA board member John Legend.
But beneath the idealistic, even utopian, rhetoric, bright-eyed liberal corps members are pursuing an agenda that is deeply conservative in both its philosophy and teaching strategy.
Instead of studying poverty from a college textbook, corps members are thrown into the trenches of the American public education system. With this hands-on approach, they become eyewitnesses to the challenges, the horrors, and the list of uncomfortable realities that plague public inner city and rural K-12 schools. Although corps members empathize with their students many emotional scars, TFA instructs its teachers not to pigeonhole students as victims, but to hold them to the same standards as every other child in America. TFA cautions that if you expect them to accomplish less than suburban children, then they will.
The organization stresses that teachers have a better understanding of the needs of their students and their students’ community than a political tsar in Washington trying to construct education policy without ever having worn the hat of a teacher at a Title 1 school. In other words, it cultivates a healthy skepticism of third party attempts to control the structure of individual schools.
TFA also poses a threat to the union bosses who have milked the government for billions of dollars in funding, using the cash only to protect a system that accepts subpar teaching standards as the norm. Corps members enter the classroom with less experience, but often times with more ambition and grit, making the case that the most tenured teachers are not always the most effective.
Corps members are also major feeders into the teacher unions’ biggest adversary – charter schools. At these government-funded but autonomously operated establishments, teachers, administrators, and parents are bringing innovation into the classrooms. With fewer funds, but less red tape, many charter school experiments are producing test scores and graduation rates that are much higher than the neighboring run-of-the-mill public schools.
As someone who drank the TFA Kool-Aid and decided, on a whim, to accept a position as a teacher in Houston, I recognize that the organization is highly imperfect and occasionally sends its corps members into impossible or unsustainable situations. However, the organization is a means of challenging the status quo. Its core mission of giving every child access to a quality education regardless of their zip code is a noble endeavor supported by most across the political spectrum. Yet, it is the organization’s conservative mindset and method with which they pursue this goal that should garner the support of anyone who believes a system of personal responsibility and limited government is the structure that best serves the American people and our children.