Liberals, ideology, and Teach for America (TFA)


Liberals have taken way too long to understand that the bipartisan educational agenda, which started with the so-called “excellence” reforms in the 1990’s, has done harm. The good news is there’s liberal push-back now on TFA (Teach for America), which is replacing experienced teachers laid off in Chicago with new recruits who have several weeks of training.  Bruce Dixon argues this makes TFA “scabs.”

What too many liberals still don’t get it is that this is an ideological struggle. The two sides are clear in this petition Bruce Dixon of Black Agenda has written, demanding that Tim Wise, a White progressive who writes and speaks about racism and White privilege, step away from his involvement with TFA. Wise’s explanation for working with TFA  perfectly illustrates liberals’ confusion.


Wise is perplexed about why he shouldn’t work for TFA.  TFA is not “fundamentally more unjust” than “other institutions where I try and bring antiracist messages.” Why should anyone want Wise to “refuse to attempt to educate folks” in TFA?


Here’s why: TFA was, from its inception, rooted in the idea that teaching doesn’t require much skill or experience.  TFA was predicated on the assumption that we don’t need teachers who make teaching a career. A revolving door of hard-working people who become exhausted after a few years is fine. They can be replaced by others. TFA presumed that if we could just change teachers, we would solve educational inequality.


These ideological assumptions underlie what is known throughout the world (except here in the U.S.) as the neoliberal project. (Analysis about “disaster capitalism” also fits.) These ed policies have been imposed on Asia, Africa, and Latin America as a quid pro quo for development aid. TFA’s unique contribution has been to recruit the “best and brightest” who will alter the social class composition of teaching while simultaneously allowing teaching to become contract labor (a reform the World Bank says is essential). 


Liberals want to believe that to judge whether a policy (or candidate) is worthy of our support we look at intentions. What they should know by now is that we have to look at evidence and ideology. What are the principles underlying the reforms? How do they correspond with what we believe and want?  On both counts, TFA is clearly the foe of poor children of color, despite its propaganda and self-conception, and has been from its start.


Should we be challenging TFA recruits to leave their new employer? I’ll weigh in on this in another blog, shortly, here on New Politics. In the meantime, you can follow me on twitter and Facebook.


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3 comments on “Liberals, ideology, and Teach for America (TFA)
  1. George Fish says:

    Youth today & the classroom I have to disagree, & I think Lois expresses the leftist notion that is false, that somehow teachers, all of them, or most of them, are “dedicated.” While my experience toes not exactly tally w/ that of public schools, as I went to small-town Catholic schools, I’d have to say that the majority of my teachers were timeservers interested in a paycheck, or else nuns who taught solely because they were told to do so, & were a nice source of cheap labor. Further, I don’t agree that the matter of quality teachers is “ideological,” as time & again it’s admitted that the worst intellectually-prepared college students go into teaching, as manifested by SAT scores, & I know many a college professor who told me directly that the education majors were their worst students. As for the children being taught today, I can say from rueful experience–a brief stint as a substitute teacher, where I was constantly confronted w/ disciplinary problems, & spending 10 1/2 years at a job actually scoring the standardized tests required by No Child Left Behind, that another problem w/ the schools today is not “ideology” but ignorant, don-want-to-learn kids who’d rather be hanging out at shopping malls, or just goofing off rather than be in a classroom. Lazy, unmotivated, smart-alecky & unruly, that’s how I’d characterize youth today, as I found them directly from both substitute teaching & scoring their dismal test papers, where often the answers weren’t even merely bad–they were truly of the don’t-have-a-clue variety! Lois Weiner’s complaint is just another example of how even the left has been beguiled by capitalist marketing & advertising into believing that everything must be “fun,” “pleasurable” & that hard work & meeting challenges are just so passé & boring! What the schools really need is the reassertion of honest “excellence;” otherwise, we of older generations will have to fear our youth coming of age, being in the workforce, in positions of power & influence, & yes, voting. As scary future scenario of the Tyranny of the Young & Stupid.

  2. re: Youth today & the classroom George Fish: first where does Lois state or imply “that somehow teachers, all of them, or most of them, are “dedicated.””? Second, you undermine yourself heavily by citing Catholic school teachers, and you should be well-positioned to see the fallacy: private school teachers don’t have to be certified or have any training at all. They simply have to meet the desires of the private entities in charge of the school. I’m not going to judge whether that automatically makes Catholic school teachers inferior, time-servers, etc., but you seem to be willing to make a lot of gross generalizations based on such narrow experience. Then, you proceed to do the same to young people, with even less evidence of any warrants but your personal impressions. Next, we get your straw man take on some weird hedonistic philosophy that Lois doesn’t even hint at. Heck, by the time I get to the end of your comment, I have to wonder if you ever read the piece to which you claim to be responding. It hardly seems like it. Lois: The TFA plague is worse than you think. It’s become part of a cynical fast track, along with the Broad Academy, for becoming part of the new management elite within public education. You put in your couple of years in a high-needs school with marginal training (and, more often than not, ZERO training in the field you’re teaching. No methods background. No pedagogical content knowledge. And often, not even a major in the field you’re teaching. But it seems that doesn’t matter if you’re TFA. High-needs districts and the states in which they exist manage to “work something out.” Of course, despite George Fish’s fishy fantasy, real education professionals know that there is a range of teachers in any district or school. The neo-liberal education deform propaganda notwithstanding, from some perspectives, that’s got to be the case, and with their insistence upon relying on student test scores and bizarre metrics they seem to be able to invent anew every year or so, pretty much any distribution of teachers can be made to appear to be the case: all great, all lousy, a normal distribution, or skewed in the direction of choice. Just change the metrics and set cut scores to get the results your political interests and business needs require. I’ve had the opportunity to work with TFA math teachers at the middle and high school levels in NYC (the South Bronx, to be specific) and Detroit. Some had definite potential to be good teachers. Many did not seem at all cut out for the work. Some were 100% bought into the TFA mantras and propaganda; perhaps not coincidentally, those seemed the least able and the least likely to remain in teaching past the two or three year mark. But I met none who walked out of TFA’s minimal training with any idea of what s/he was in for. Most had miserable first years trying to get even the smallest semblance of order in their rooms. Some reported being in tears in the hallway on a half-dozen or more occasions during the year. Of course, that is not surprising: even teachers who’ve done a full teacher education and student-teaching program struggle. What worried me, however, was how little most TFA folks knew about what the issues were that made teaching mathematics a PROFESSION, not a factory job that “anyone” can do. And TFA most definitely promotes disrespect for teaching as a professional practice, one that takes constant reflection, interaction with colleagues and mentors, and so forth. And why would anyone who knows s/he’s quitting to become a young master/mistress of the education universe, another Michelle Rhee, need to worry about becoming a solid teacher of any specific subject at all? Rhee has managed to fool some people into thinking she was an effective elementary school teacher, but careful scrutiny of her stories suggests that they are more self-aggrandizing invention than hard fact. Whatever the original intentions of TFA, those have been left in the dust. It’s all about TFA now, not children, not quality education, not respect for a craft or a given intellectual discipline. It’s a mockery of intellectual growth, professional development, and an insult to both good teachers and high-needs children and communities. It’s not a “leftist” organization, as Mr. Fish confusedly asserts, but a classic neoliberal project of the worst kind.

    • George Fish says:

      Michael, my remarks had Michael, my remarks had nothing to do whatsoever w/ TFA, which may well be as you assert it to be. I was addressing other matters entirely, matters that relate to a broader critique of education & today’s society than you noted–name, the present crisis of across-the-board MEDIOCRITY all around us, & definitely reflected on what I did see over a 10-year stint as a “professional” (w/ the required university degree) scorer of the state school system standardized tests required under the No Child Left Behind Act, and seeing paper after paper showing truly dismal results, results indicating that the tested student didn’t have even a clue on how to answer the grade-appropriate question. That’s the heart of my critique–despite alleged “professionalism,” despite myriad measures of “school reform” of all types & kinds (several of them, I certainly admit, not very good or adequate at all), the result is still the same: youth graduating from high school w/ not even minimal skills, dislike of reading and academic effort because it isn’t “fun,” and just nihilist attitudes. Fortunately, here in Indianapolis, IN, there IS a notable exception–the alternative school affiliated with the KI EcoCenter, a local black working-class neighborhood empowerment organization, which is producing admirable youth w/ seriously critical outlooks & positive politics. I just wish such could prevail in the public schools, the charter skills, & even the parochial schools–as I like critically-engaged youth, but fear those not, esp. if they vote on my Social Security benefits!

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