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Teach For America Accused of Sending Idealistic Young White People Into School Districts They Don’t Understand

A NPR report claims that Teach For America (TFA,) the organization that encourages young people to sign up to be educators in low-income, minority neighborhoods, has a major problem with race.

According to an article in Jacobin, two TFA alumni, Sarah Matsui and T. Jameson Brewer, accuse the organization of sending idealistic, mainly white young people into situations they are wildly unprepared for. Statistics from TFA’s website support Matsui and Brewer’s argument.

The TFA says about half of their teachers (49 percent) are white. Since these teachers are going into troubled, underperforming minority school districts, there can be a disconnect with the students. Currently, 80 percent of America’s teachers are white females. This might help to explain the high rate of suspension among Black male students who are being taught by women who are scared of their presence.

TFA corps member, Elliott (who used an alias for the story), talked about some disturbing attitudes he picked up from fellow corps members, who tended to have a condescending view of their students.

“I do get uncomfortable when a group of corps members come together and start the ‘they can’t…’ or ‘they don’t…’ game,” Elliott said, according to Jacobin. “Never heard of it? Here is what it sounds like: ‘They can’t sit silently. ‘Yeah! They don’t want to learn!’ ‘Tell’em! They can’t even read a sentence!’ These corps members are making gross generalizations. Racial stereotypes like, ‘They’re not even worthy.’”

It seems that TFA is throwing lambs to the wolves, by taking idealistic young college graduates and thrusting them into high-stress teaching environments. Amber Kim, a former TFA corps member, was disillusioned by her experience.

“Growing up in low-income schools in the south suburbs of Chicago, I sincerely, albeit naively, believed education was the great equalizer… I accepted as true — and TFA was quick to confirm — the myth that all that poor students (of color) need is what affluent (White) students have: access to great schools with the best teachers that hold students to high expectations,” Kim said. “I have come to acknowledge and recognize color- blind racism and to see how it undergirds educational inequity. TFA, in my view, perpetuates, commits, and cultivates this kind of covert racism.”

Matsui and Brewer both said TFA encourages corps members to buy into the “Hero teacher” narrative, the idea that all minority children need is a dedicated teacher and hard work to succeed. This idea ignores some of America’s structural racism.

“For example, in Philadelphia, per pupil expenditures were $9,299 per pupil for the city’s 79 percent Black and Latino population, while just over the city’s boundaries into Lower Merion, part of the inner ring of Philadelphia suburbs, the per pupil expenditure was $17,261 for a 91 percent white population,” Matsui said.

Jacobin reported that some schools are beginning to become wary of TFA. Several schools have cut ties with the organization and some professors refuse to write letters of recommendation for TFA applicants. And from a more cynical point of view, some of the young people who sign up for TFA are not really committed to improving education. They join because it will look good on their resume and boost their chances of getting into grad school. Jacobin also reports that many top companies, such as Google, General Electric and JP Morgan, heavily recruit TFA alumni.

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44 thoughts on “Teach For America Accused of Sending Idealistic Young White People Into School Districts They Don’t Understand

  1. Skye Dent says:

    I just (Wednesday) finished my final interview for TFA. I'm a Black Mississippi Choctaw Latina over 40. But I was raised black an identify as black. I grew up in tought Roxbury, Boston and my own brother was murdered when he was 15. I have a BA in Latin American Studies from Brown Univ, a MA in Journalism from the University of Missouri at Columbia, and a 2007 MFA from NYU Tisch. I've taught in inner city high schools for severeal years and as a university professor for several years. I've done everything from write full time for newspapers, handle unit publicity for major feature films, write/produce for Discoveriy Channel, and write for TV series like Star Trek Voyager and The Burning Zone. I even wrote a CDC safe sex video game. I applied to be a TFA teacher because I want to help students draw upon the strengths within them so they can be as successful, if not more successful, as I. Inner city lower-income students are not disadvantaged. They are survivors and in having survived, they have developed advantages and strengths that go unapplauded. I hope TFA hires me and gives me the chance to let these students hear my applause

  2. Curt Morgan Do you think poor parenting is specific to african americans? Or for that matter, the concept of failure? I can't imagine that you could. You may or may not be malicious, but these are the questions we need to ask ourselves. In case you weren't already aware, your assertions are deeply, corrosively racist. A lot of factors have contributed to the current situation. I'd rather you come right out and sling racial slurs at me than try to suggest that there is such thing as a failure unique to the color of my skin.

  3. To say inner city students are not disadvantaged is idealistic, extremely naive and ultimately false. Any human develops skills other may not possess as a result of their unique environment. The resilience, determination and survivalist modus operandi are extremely valuable hard won life traits. But I cannot understand how you feel very ability you are applauding – the ability to overcome, is not implicit evidence that these students start at a disadvantage. The silver lining does not disqualify the cloud. 9 year olds should not have to worry about survival. Sweeping generalizations aside, the numbers speak for themselves. Less money, fewer supplies, low class variety- the numbers illustrate that nearly accross the board inner city schools are less than their white suburban counterparts. Disadvantage is not an idea you can overcome with pluck and perserverance, it is a reality and it is imperative that succesful members of the black community aknowledge and mobilize to do something about it.

  4. What is black failure?

  5. Curt Morgan says:

    Callie Morton No. 1, apparently: parenting.

  6. Curt Morgan says:

    Callie Morton The truth is racist. And that word means nothing to me.

  7. Curt Morgan the excerpt is wrong on both ends. One for the assumption that white females are innately afraid of black males, and two for blaming this fallacy on why black males are being suspended. Though you are correct in noting the fallacy the ethos in your posting perpetuates the cultural difference the article is highlighting.

  8. Jay Grosflam says:

    TFA is over rated.

  9. Meech Lynn says:

    white racism is so ugly that not only has it systematically destroyed the black race, assholes like you keep needing to justify it. I call the ignorance you exhibit a glaring example of WHITE FAILURE. the only whites with whom your messgae resonates are those whose own sense of inadequacy compels them to obsess over how inferior blacks are. Newsflash. If you were truly a winner at life, you wouldn't even need to to that. You're nothing more than an admitted failure and you don't even realize it. You're dismissed. Now run along, loser.

  10. Meech Lynn says:

    Curt Morgan lol…. yeah, all whites are great parents? I know you're not dumb enough to believe that. You're just hoping you can convince someone dumber than you are to believe it. #nothappening.

  11. This entire is nothing more than a bunch of malarky!!! Please stop trying to convince us that these poor white women are all so afraid of our little black boys or that these black children are somehow inferior to their white counterparts. There are just as many children of every race & ethnicity that are struggling learners. Until people get past this notion that white is right & black is somehow wrong we will continue to have these same problems in future generations. I don't have time for the "Woe is me" attitude of these young white females entering the teaching force. They are receiving the same college education as their black counterparts but you don't hear us using those pathetic excuses. Just stop with the white super hero complex!

  12. Kyle Shuflin says:

    I would hypothiesis that the social and economic stressors associated with being in a low-income, minority neighborhoods makes it harder to be a parent and harder to be a student and would have a stronger impact on the rate of suspension than the teachers being afraid of black students. While I am not ready to rule out this since there I am aware of data that suggest implict biases against black people are widspread amoung Americans. I am unaware of any data suggesting that white women or TFA are more lilkely to struggle with this bias than an alternative demographic.

  13. Meech Lynn you're insane get some help

  14. Avery Reese says:

    Actually it's the same concept of why so many blacks kids are being killed by white police. It makes perfect sense, both are to scared to do there jobs professionally because of the fear factor in being in the presence of black youth. You can't be scared to do your job if so, you might need to find jobs where black people are not so intimadating.

  15. Tosha ONeal says:

    I'd be curious to know how these "not ready for prime time" TFA corps members approach their students – as the great white saviors? Do the come in with pre-concieved notions about the students lack of intelligence? If the TFA member approaches a 6-8 the grader with that approach the result won't be positive. Neither teacher nor student has a common point of reference in the relationship. I'm actually referring to the "hero" TFA membet. If you have poor students who are not receiving adequate nutrition we all know a child can't /won't learn. My guess is they walk into the class thinking they will be welcomed as the "great liberator" (where have we heard that from?). It's unfortunate that this program is not working as well as expected. I think TFA needs to reevaluate their Corp member selection and training to something more realistic. The concept is wonderful and probably works well in certain circumstances.

  16. Finally!!!!… It's being said. Although well-intentioned, many of those in the TFA program do not have degrees in education, thus they hadn't/haven't been taught or developed theories and /or methods for use in a classroom setting. I'd be interested to know how many remain and make teaching a life-time career. (Does anyone do this anymore?) It was my experience that many 'secured' these positions because: (1) they could pass the tests (2) they were given bonuses and (3) it offered job security (with benefits)…and not necessarily in that order.

  17. White women aren't afraid of little black boys when they grow up. Maybe they should see it as they are educating their future companions.

  18. Some TFA candidates come with good intentions but are in a state of shock at what they have gotten themselves into. Unfortunately, many are intimidated by black males and don't really know how to handle situations with them. Many get a pass on dealing with these boys, as in some cases, the boys are removed from their classes. Black teachers, on the other hand, have to deal with the situations because they should be able to relate on a race basis. I have heard TFA teachers say they are told not to intervene in any confrontations between students (verbal or physical) and I have actually witnessed a male TFA teacher watch two boys argue and eventually physically beat each other without one word or action from him. I could not stand by and watch the confrontation so I intervened and got the boys to stop. I could go on about situations that should never occur if teachers would do what comes naturally when dealing with children. "If you're scared, then you are in the wrong business."

  19. Susan Grant says:

    Damned if they do, damned if they don't. (TFA members, that is). It's the same story with many New York Teaching Fellows who agree to teach in "high need" schools and find their fresh outlooks and creativity thwarted by older longtime personnel who feel threatened by youth and fresh ideas and make their lives miserable by ostracism, criticism, and in some cases, the denial of paraprofessionals to which their students are entitled. If you can't come up with a solution to the woes of failing schools, which noone seems able to do, then hold the criticism of those who are at least trying to make a difference.

  20. Pepe Secor says:

    My experience is they come to save us and due to their inexperience and culture bias they destroy us. Two years in a struggling students academics and the TFA is struggling academically themselves. Another way to destroy our children from within. Same on the government and TFA.

  21. This is an alarming fact which proofs more attention is needed to minorities, if we want an equal America and better educated people. Letrs make them smart now or later we will pay the price…as we compete around the world in a global economy. Lets be smart no dommy…

  22. So, when should you give students a "Stand and Deliver" type of challenge?

  23. Warren Bloom says:

    Curt Morgan : Have you ever worked paycheck-to-paycheck in a housing project? If so, carry on. If not, check your privilege.

  24. After reading these comments I just want to say that it is evident many people are clueless as to what is really going on with America's mis-education system. The public school system was always about controlling and programming the masses to be better educated indentured servants slaving for a system that was designed to keep rich people rich and poor people disenfranchised, clueless, poor, exploited and loving it. Look at the history of education in this country, who started it and who profits from it? White women in this country are the most protected class from everyone except their own men when they want to use and beat on them. White men have always thought Black Men wanted their white women and devised rules, laws, and societal controls to subjugate Men and Women of color in order to profit and perpetuate white supremacy! Do some research on the true history of this country; open your eyes and ears; get a clue; buy a vowel! #BlackTeachersMatter

  25. Education majors are certainly NOT the answer…and TFA folks earn almost no salary for their time. It's not the easy slide. Trust me.

  26. Teaching is stressful b/c it's mostly trial by fire. Some training but also ongoing support would be nice. I'm not surprised these young teachers are burning out.

  27. Londi Lion says:

    This is such rubbish! No way does TFA "encourage corps members to buy into the “Hero teacher” narrative". This is the opinion of two out of over tens of thousands who've done this program. TFA has problems but not one word of this article should be taken seriously. Disgusting journalism

  28. Kwodwo Moore says:

    I'm just gonna point out that so many black kids have died or been brutalized at the hands of Black Police officers as well…

  29. Susan Grant says:

    Exactly! All I see is criticism, but no better ideas and no volunteers to do anything themselves.

  30. Asia Martin says:

    I appreciate the examples: They can’t sit silently. ‘Yeah! They don’t want to learn!’ ‘Tell’em! They can’t even read a sentence!’ BUT many teachers say these things about students no matter what income or race they are. The article was eye opening but the examples are a bit short sighted and emotional. I work abroad in China and have heard many of my colleagues of different races make these comments about their students. Please give more details.

  31. This reminds me of the "Manifest destiny" 1872 American Progress painting.

  32. A.J. Adejare says:

    If only more people would like this.

  33. Denis Ian says:

    They're poorly prepared. That'stheir worst circumstance.

  34. Denis Ian says:

    They are ill-prepared. Period.

  35. Kasie Lee says:

    I'm a current TFA teacher. I can tell you that I definitely did not get paid the same as qualified teachers my first year. I had to go through the same process as any other teacher (non TFA) to get my "qualified" status. I am not employed by TFA, I am employed by the Department of Education/ my principal.

    Also, it is required by TFA that we take courses at a grad school of education. I am one semester away from earning my masters in education from Johns Hopkins.

  36. Lee Spiro says:

    Denis, I'd love to repost your post on the Bad-Ass Teachers Facebook page. It's quite brilliant. (Or post it there yourself).

  37. Laura Moon says:

    I'm fairly certain that the caucasion female statistic is outdated about TFA. I recently went through the interview process and during my group interview, I quickly realized that I, a white and yes, priveledged woman, was the minority in the room. Needless to say, I was extremely relieved that the rumors were wrong about TFA. I was further convinced that they were wrong when they began telling us about their strong beliefs such as, diversity, having their teachers come from similar backgrounds as their students, and that the American Education system is both a classist and racist institution and so forth. I was honestly extremely surprised that an organization was being so upfront about the true issues, because lets face it, we don't see that too much these days. I was skeptical too at first about this organization, but once I heard how passionately and truthfully the corps member was speaking, I knew that this truly was an organization that was striving to make a difference in the right way.

  38. Lee Merrick says:

    Denis Ian What reasoned and thoughtful arguments and facts you use to dismantle Ms. Hinton's position…

  39. I agree with much that you have written. However, I wonder if you are active in your local Teachers Union?

  40. Denis Ian says:

    Lee Spiro Go right ahead and repost

  41. Denis Ian says:

    Cecilia W. Lewis I am a retired teacher …34 years of classroom experience

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