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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