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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Teach for America turns left

Teach for America, founded in 1990 to challenge the educational status quo, has turned left, writes Sohrab Ahmari, a former TFA corps member, in Commentary.

These days, TFA’s voice on charters, accountability, and curricular rigor is decidedly muffled. Such education-reform essentials have been eclipsed in TFA’s discourse by immigration, policing, “queer” and transgender-identity issues, and other left-wing causes. TFA’s message seems to be that until numerous other social ills are cured—until immigration is less restricted, policing becomes more gentle, and poverty is eliminated—an excellent education will elude the poor. That was the status-quo defeatism TFA originally set out to challenge.

When Ahmari joined in 2005, he learned it would take incredibly hard work to overcome “chronically low expectations; broken homes and criminality in the streets; messy, undisciplined classrooms; and bloated bureaucracies that put the needs of adults above those of children,” she writes. But TFA members believed their low-income students were not “doomed to underachievement.”

By contrast, he writes, leading educators blamed the achievement gap on “inadequate funding and larger social inequalities,” transferring responsibility for “classroom outcomes from teachers to policymakers and society at large.”

When Betsy DeVos was named Education secretary, TFA chief executive Elisa Villanueva Beard issued a statement with 11 demands, writes Ahmari.

Topping the litany was protection of the previous administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which granted legal status to certain illegal immigrants brought into the country as children. Then came the identity-politics checklist: “SAFE classrooms for LGBTQ youth and teachers,” “safe classrooms for students and teachers with disabilities,” “safe classrooms for Muslim students and teachers,” “culturally responsive teaching,” and so on.

TFA should focus on teaching, not on identity politics, concludes Ahmari.

TFA has worked hard to recruit more black and Latino college graduates: Half of corps members are people of color, up from 29 percent in 2008. About a third are the first in their families to graduate from college. They’re also more likely to have grown up in the communities where they’re teaching.

After three years of declining interest, applications rose this year.

Teach for America is showing education reformers the way, argues RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. “Teach For America is still focused on its primary goal of recruiting and training high-quality teachers” and “remains the foremost pathway for Black, Latino, and Native collegians to get into teaching and, ultimately, helping children who look like them gain the knowledge (and even the role models) they need and deserve,” he writes. “Tackling issues affecting the most-vulnerable” advances that mission.

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