“What Will Be Your Legacy?”

Today’s the Teach for America application deadline, as about a hundred posters on campus reminded me this week. The date invites a brief reflection on what TFA is doing, and how it is doing it. Yes, it still bothers me.

As I watched Waiting for Superman with a class last night for the third time, I was challenged again by the core values the film shares with TFA: that the only way to address entrenched, systemic problems is to “drop out” of the system and start anew. This is the logic the film presents to defend charter schools as the sole, scrappy Davids capable of felling the Goliath of the ineffective existing system (an argument effectively fact-checked and dismantled elsewhere). And it is the logic of TFA too – don’t become part of the “blob” of traditional educators that prevent change: join us on the barricades of a new, nimbler effort, where your individual freedom won’t be hampered and your individual success will be rewarded.

I especially note how TFA’s recruitment pitch appeals to an inborn desire to be a member of an elite corps – in fairness, perhaps no more attractive an option to the students I teach than it would have been to me, but this is the supposedly the “Trophy Kids”  generation, more dependent upon external validation than any that’s preceded it. This terrific student columnist at Mt. Holyoke puts a very fine point on how TFA threads the needle of selectivity in a tight job market:

Teach for America is easy to gravitate towards—they come to you, saving you much of the overwhelming and sometimes scary process of figuring out where to go and what to do after graduation, and, with a 12 percent acceptance rate, they’ll assure you and everyone else that you really do have it together.

There is also the way that the “elite corps” mentality of TFA casts education as a matter of noblesse oblige, something worthy to invest in with your spare capital. Most of those recruitment posters say, “What Will Your Legacy Be?” – “legacy” being of course what the advantaged and well-off call their leavings to those who come after. A cynic could say it’s a dramatic way to capitalize on a student’s desire to make something of herself in a job market offering fewer and fewer chances to do that with a BA. And who am I to fault a college student for seeking an edge? If you can’t find a job, why not wait out the recession doing some good?

Maybe it’s those two things together that leave me queasy: the way TFA strengthens resumes as evidence of commitment to the have-nots, and the way it capitalizes on the vague desire to “make a difference” while actually undermining less-stylish efforts to address these intractable problems.

And I think I can say “undermining” because the issue is too important to depend upon the altruism and energy of the young. A school is not a Habitat for Humanity house; no disrespect to that terrific organization, but students and their schools’ cultures need sustained, institutional support, not drop-in charity. Education change requires systemic efforts that address not only the abuses of tenure and collective bargaining (that WFS succeeds in making us think about in true muckraking fashion, touche), but also intransigent and politically-toxic issues like income disparity and institutionalized racism.

It also requires us to look hard at the glaring lack of respect for teachers’ rights and craft that led to their unionization in the first place. These are crucial issues of professional autonomy that continue to be ignored in merit-based efforts to “pay teachers more” based on their attainment of measurable outcomes, despite the impressive consensus among people who spend their lives thinking about this problem that it doesn’t work and that TFA’s resources would be better spent elsewhere.

Thrashing out this whole question is bigger than my present understanding, and certainly outgrows the time I have for it today (you’d be better served to read that student editorial I linked above, and her follow-up here – man, what are they feeding the undergrads up there?) To be clear: I have deepest respect and gratitude for the energy and altruism those extraordinary young people in TFA are bringing to the students they spend a few years with. But we do need to think about legacy when we consider TFA. Will this generation be remembered as those who took on core issues that underpin problems of schools, or those who were satisfied with short-term interventions that boosted scores, but shortchanged the long-term need?

What do you think?

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