Sunday, July 8, 2012

Controversies and Cults: Teach for America

This will be the most controversial piece I have ever written.  I put it out there, not because I fully agree with the argument I am about to make, but because there is something frightening and real behind the hyperbole.  I hope, if nothing else, this post sparks some discussion.

Today, on the courageous and truthful TFA alum Gary Rubinstein's blog, I read something which gave me pause.  A little controversy had erupted after a TFA leader, Dr. Camika Royal, gave a speech where she made some very atypical assertions questioning the education reform orthodoxy of charter schools, "ineffective" veteran teachers, and the use of test scores.  After Gary pointed out how unusual this video was, it was promptly removed, although it was unclear by whom.

A heated debated started in the comments section, but one comment by a Bill Murphy in particular stood out to me:  
I have known Camika for 10 years and had the pleasure of working with her from time to time. I have never known her to be over [sic] than a fierce protector and teacher of children, an ally to underserved communities, an honest woman of integrity and wisdom, and a staunch advocate for education reform. While I am certain her speech was intended to caution new corps members to enter their schools with respect and humility, I am also certain she did not intend to be allied with the anti-reform movement. Camika has the wisdom to make a Solomon-like decision and to decry reform for its own sake or in abdication of responsibility while also calling for us to make dramatic, radical change to the status quo. Shame on anyone who would try to use her words to prove points she has no interest in affiliating with.
The almost violent and visceral reaction to Gary's apparent insult of agreeing with people like me--the "anti-reform movement"?-- made me think.  This reaction was so severe, and it triggered memories of other conversations I've had where I have heard similar responses, especially with Teach for America alums and current members, that I decided to do a little digging.

People often jokingly refer to TFA as being cult-like and throw around the term "drinking the Kool-Aid".  So, on a whim, I looked up a very unscientific check-list of the characteristics of a cult which you can see in full here.  And, call me crazy-which I know many of you will after you read this-but every single category seemed to fit with TFA.

The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law. 
Wendy Kopp. She is revered, her books are quoted, her speeches widely circulated.  People in TFA sometimes boast about their interactions with her.
Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
Besides Gary, who else is so open in their dissent?  And even being associated with dissent, as in the case of Dr. Royal, was enough to take down her video.  There was no conversation, no explanation.  Dissent seems to be viewed as dangerous and wrong, at least from my outside perspective.
Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
That phrase, "debilitating work routines" really stuck out.  Between the sleepless nights of Institute and straight on into the toughest first and second years of teaching (without proper training) leaves little time to question or push back.  Many CMs complain about mental health issues, especially during that first year.  It sounds almost abusive to me.

The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).
Corp members are told where to live and work, and correct me if I'm wrong, but told to dress a certain way --"professionally".  Also, TFA has somewhat developed a special language of acronyms and terms specific to the organization.

The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity). 
TFA elitist?  Surely I don't even have to explain this one.   They are, afterall, the exalted "best and brightest" in education today.

The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
Apparently, being associated with a lowly teacher activist like me is beyond comprehension to many TFA members.  Dr. Royal certainly didn't want to be associated with "them".  

The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).
Kopp was never elected or appointed, and TFA the organization does not have to respond to the criticism often associated with it.   They are accountable to no one.

The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members' participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).
According to TFA, they are creating "leaders".  And if that means throwing some completely unprepared novices into a classroom of children in need of the most experienced educators, well so be it.  If that means working in the schools where veteran teachers were fired and removed through closure or turnaround, that is fine too.  Displacing experienced educators is allowable in the name of serving TFA's mission.  And why does TFA ask its members to do things like go to fundraising events when they should be focusing all their energy on their classrooms?

The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt iin order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
How much shame is associated with either not making miraculous transformative progress with the students or, God forbid, quitting the organization before your two years is up?
Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.
Move to a new city.  Be cut off from your usual family and friend support networks.  Have no time for a social life outside of TFA. Then be so inspired by the experience that you become the next Michelle Rhee.

The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members. 
How much money, time, and manpower does TFA spend on recruiting?  How often do they brag about the sheer number of applicants?  And they are always expanding.
The group is preoccupied with making money. 
Fundraising.  Doesn't matter if you are a conservation foundation (like the Walton Foundation), big bank, or financial institution with stated goals that are the antithesis of the stated goals of TFA's equality and justice.  TFA will take anyone's money.

Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
Yes, and yes. (See above)

Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
TFA members often live together (please correct me if I am wrong about this) and they always try to have at least two members in any one school.

The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.
And here we are, back to the controversy surrounding this video and the comment by Mr. Murphy.  Never leave the TFA "side".

Looking through this list, there were just too many similarities to TFA.  But for some reason, it helped me understand how ed reformers remain so tight, on point, and unwavering, in their rhetoric.  There is something about the bootcamp atmosphere, far from home, full of inspirational phrases and slogans, which solidifies into an unquestioning support for the organization and the education reform movement as a whole.

To me, this pure reform doctrine is dangerous. It does not leave room for questioning, criticism, or growth.  While both "sides" have been guilty of polarizing rhetoric, I feel the TFA model--that ALMOST cult-like indoctrination, is actively squashing the discussion.

Well there it is.  A very controversial post indeed.  What do you all think?


  1. Well, that pretty much sums it up.

    I am a public school teacher who completed the traditional route to teaching and certification. I have taught 26 years ages 8-16, spec. Ed and red. Ed. I never understood why people were so enraptured with TFA and why teachers were being laid off and then people who would only work for two years and then leave would be preferred. I don't believe that they are more effective than other new teachers, especially the veterans. It actually shows you how gullible and easily manipulated the public is when presented with a slick pr campaign and the repetition of oversimplified generalities.

    If TFA has been around for 20 years and there is still an achievement gap, why aren't they considered ineffective? Maybe after twenty years, TFA is the status quo? I thought their teachers were so effective, so why has there been little to no progress? I wish these self-appointed reformers (Rhee, Kopp) would apply high standards to themselves and raising money would not be a criteria for success, which besides self- promotion, is their only other strength.

    Barbara Miner wrote a very good analysis in 2010 titled: Looking past the spin: Teach for America. You probably already read that.

    1. Thanks for the comment. There are so many questions surrounding TFA, and so few places to honestly debate them. They are such a united, unyielding, perfectly-marketed front. (Perhaps a better analogy would be the Stepford Wives...Hmm...) Oh, and I love that Barbara Miner piece. Also check out Rachel Levy's very informative and thoughtful work which she links to below.

    2. Katie,

      Thanks for directing me to Rachel's article....great piece. I will forward to others. Maybe the bloom is falling off the rose one petal at a time. Not much will change until TFA's funding decreases. Unless it affects her monetarily she will not change her tune. However, if I were Kopp, I would be embarrassed to be associated with Rhee, White, Sternberg and the one in NJ...can't remember the name..Cami ?? They are destroying public schools and they are so arrogant they don't know what they don't know. They have memorized their 6-8 talking points and they are sticking to them even if they are inaccurate and canned.

    3. No problem. Here are a few others that you should definitely check out: and this provocative and EXCELLENT radio piece: and Of course, Anthony Cody has done many posts about TFA: There is a growing amount of dissent pushing back against TFA. I hope it continues and that TFA either changes or ends.

    4. >>If TFA has been around for 20 years and there is still an achievement gap, why aren't they considered ineffective?

      While closing the achievement gap IS the mission of Teach For America, it is unreasonable to characterize the organization as ineffective using the logic that the gap is not closed yet. If you meant "little to no progress" in reference to Teach For America's role in closing the gap, consider that corps members make up far less than 1% of the teacher population.

  2. You know, I don't find this comparison so shocking. Over the years, I've heard many people independently comment or joke that TFA is like a cult. This especially comes from people who interact with former TFA people in educational leadership roles. Conversations with these people are often recounted as being frustrating because the TFA person can rarely get beyond canned talking points. It's like they are on auto-pilot or some kind of robot.

    I actually used the word "cult" somewhere in a first draft of my own piece on TFA but then my editor, aka my husband, advised me to take it out because he thought it was over the top. And it probably was--I'm often flippant before I'm nuanced.

    But I think there is a grain of truth to this idea or at least some similarities. Otherwise, why would that term come up so often? Cults are based on extreme ideology and especially in recent years, TFA has become an ideology-based organization.

    But I don't know, looking at the checklist you present, I also thought of the military and TFA teachers are called "corps" members. Sometimes, such descriptors are so vaguely written that they could in theory apply to many situations or groups, like horoscopes.

    1. Thanks for the reply, Rachel. I agree that the analogy isn't perfect. But when I think about other educators and education groups, no other group comes close to this type of groupthink. I've had the same experience you mentioned talking with some TFA members and alums. You can't get past the "poverty is not destiny" rhetoric into the fuller, complicated, messy reality of schools in America. And it's frustrating. Comparing TFA to a cult seems extreme to me as well, but yet, there was something so apt in the comparison.

  3. Fearless and spot on. Brava!

    1. Thanks Duke! Always love getting feedback from fellow bloggers. Especially ones as amazing as you!

  4. I believe that it is the Texas Board of Education that has mandated limiting the teaching of critical thinking for students. Sounds like they subscribe to the TFA doctrine, too, just beginning in kindergarten.

    1. Freaking ridiculous. Since when is tfa associated with people who don't like teaching critical thinking? have you done a random survey of a 100 corps members and seen overwhelming evidence that they all don't believe in teaching critical thinking? did you actually know that one of the metrics that are used to measure corps' members effectiveness is "engagement with rigorous content." I work in a school with 15 tfa alumni and every single one of them has a vision for their class that involves critical thinking and rigorous work. Stop making such absurd generalization, suspend some judgement, and exercise some of your own critical thinking.

  5. I was never TFA, but I was once a young teacher in the Bronx. And I was fed the same lies, this time by some education professors in the 1990's, who were spewing, frankly, much of the same rhetoric. This didn't start with TFA: it's very American to assume that poverty and a lousy home life matters less than having teachers with magical powers. TFA is just the logical product of such a superficial culture.

    TFA is part of a bigger problem: our societal refusal do accept that those teachers in movies like Dangerous Minds, and who knows how many other films won't be coming to a neighborhood near you to save the inner-city kids. Any system that depends on a few miracle workers is doomed to fail. And I'm no longer sure such miracle workers exist, and if they do, how long can they maintain that kind of stamina? Or do they eat a bee, tape their kids faces, and people just assume they are some kind of a genius?

    My first year of teaching in the Bronx was incredibly difficult, both physically and mentally. I had gone through the usual student teaching and traditional certification program, but still wasn't prepared for all of the abuse (no other way to put it) from the kids and the administration. I felt like a fraud and like a child for not being able to manage my class, nor let their occaisional insults not get to me. I finally started asking veteran teachers for help, the same people I used to avoid, because my administrator (who only had 4 years of teaching, himself) gave me advice that never worked.

    My point of this long, rambling post: Ms. Katie, yes, I'd agree that TFA is cult-like, but so it is part of a bigger picture.

  6. I don't have the time--nor the motivation, frankly--to respond to every single point, but a few need to be addressed because they verge on ridiculous. Not saying that you're ridiculous, Ms. Katie, because I know that you're not--it seems that this post simply comes from a place of few experiences with the organization, and mostly negative ones at that. (Context: I just finished a successful first year as a corps member, and I intend to stay in the classroom long-term despite my largely academic/industry background in college.)

    "The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law."

    This is absolutely not true. Wendy Kopp is respected as non-profit leader who came up with an innovative idea for a national teaching corps and was able to keep it alive in its early years. That's it. Not once have I heard her being revered except in a joking context, and everyone knows that she (1) is a terrible public speaker, and (2) has no teaching experience. She's an imperfect leader of an imperfect organization, doing an imperfect but decent job in the opinion of most people involved with TFA.

    "Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished."

    Again, absolutely not true. I can't count how many times I've brought up significant doubts or concerns with staff members and been listened to and respected. Recent example: I told my manager that I didn't think it was valuable to spend an hour filling out the TFA achievement tracker after every assessment, only to send it off and never see it again. She told me that if the data wasn't useful to me, I didn't have to keep sending it. Another recent example: I spoke to a national recruitment strategy staff member about my concerns regarding the recruitment model (i.e. the mass "leadership" emails, the one-on-one coffee chats, the boasting of selectiveness, etc.). He told me that many other people shared the same concerns and showed me concrete examples of how they were changing things up in the organization. These are hardly examples of doubt and dissent being discouraged/punished.

    "The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations)."

    Right, the federal government provides 12% of TFA's annual budget and then just lets the organization do whatever it wants with that money. TFA files an annual report with an itemized budget and concrete data though, just for kicks.

    "Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group."
    "Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities."
    "Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members."

    In what universe does TFA require these things? Certainly not in this one. I talk with my family and college friends several times per week, I've made great new (non-TFA) friends in my region, and I'm pursuing what I'm truly passionate about. Starting this fall, I'm living with three non-TFA roommates I met this past year and could not have gotten close to unless I spent significant amounts of time doing non-teaching and non-TFA-related things. And this isn't just true for me--except for a few corps members who really struggle in their classrooms and therefore dedicate inordinate amounts of time to teaching, everyone in my region has a real life doing things that they enjoy.

    I'd love to hear your thoughts on these points.

    1. James,

      Thank you for the reply, I appreciate getting feedback from people in the program.

      It's funny, any time I bring up my concerns, people within TFA always give me the same sorts of answers: "well I don't XXX" "no one ever told me YYY". It is always about the individual and individual experiences, from closing the achievement gap to how you view TFA. There are the handful that say, "I'm still in the classroom after 5 years" when we KNOW that is the exception. People within the organization simply refuse to look at the larger context in which TFA operates. This narrow view seems to be drilled into your subconscious. It's the same as being told that looking at the poverty or inequalities in our children's lives is an "excuse". It's always about "you, the individual", never us as a society or TFA as an organization.

      I believe many in TFA are simply blinded. They want to believe they are doing something good and then they are told repeatedly by the organization, friends & family, and the media that they are doing something good. I get that people do not have the ear to hear the criticisms. (A great read on this idea: )

      Yet I think this is all a part of that odd groupthink. Saying "we dissent all the time" but NEVER publicly, is quite a contradiction. As we saw with this Dr. Royal incident, any PUBLIC criticism is quickly cleaned up (whether from the dissenter or the organization, the end is the same). The image is all important, and if nothing else, TFA is fantastic at marketing and messaging their product. And perhaps I was wrong about accountability--TFA is accountable to where the bulk of their money comes from--the rich and elite. It is no wonder they spout neoliberal ideologies which let the rich off the hook in changing society.

      And when I look at the ridiculous expectations placed on first year CMs, to the point that many complain of serious mental health issues (The fact that people created websites like this: TFA Horror Stories ) and I read the blogs on teachforus, I cringe. I notice that you were careful to include the word "successful first year" teacher. TFA teaches you implicitly to label yourself that way--it counters one of their most common criticisms. And you all are so close to it, you can't see. You are the fish swimming around saying "what water?"

      You say you are moving in with "non-TFA" roommates starting next year. Reading between the lines, I infer that you DID live with TFA members for a whole year. So this means you had the Institute summer training bonanza AND a whole year of hearing TFA rhetoric thrown around every single day. That is huge.

      TFA novices often say to me that I must just be ignorant. My view is often dismissed, despite doing extensive research and speaking with dozens of experts, simply because I am not TFA. I don't think it even occurs to people within TFA that they might be wrong. I myself used to have no problem at all with TFA, charters, getting rid of tenure, all of it. It was when I began to get educated about the realities of our nation's schools that my tune changed.

      I think you maybe haven't seen the big picture yet. I encourage you to heed the growing complaints and look critically at what TFA is. And consider that maybe, just maybe, that your narrow focus is exactly what you were trained by TFA to see.

    2. I'm sorry, but I don't actually think you appreciate getting feedback from people in TFA unless it confirms your preconceived notions about the organization. Every single response I've seen you give to people who speak in support of TFA has been something along the lines of, "That may be true for you, but you need to open your eyes to the bigger picture." Meanwhile, you have no problem with exalting criticism (e.g. recoveringfromtfa), even when it too is supported by anecdotal evidence. Your position is condescending, and worse, it's completely unfalsifiable, since according to you, any support of TFA is the result of brainwashing and group-think.

      I'm going to try to respond to some of your points, even though you'll probably just see it as further evidence that I'm a blind sheep without the ability to think critically.

      - What exactly would dissenting publicly accomplish that dissenting within the organization couldn't? Maybe (probably, even) I would have taken it public if I had expressed my concerns (several of which extended beyond my own personal experience) and seen nothing change in response--I can totally see how that would frustrate and anger someone just trying to be the best teacher possible for their students. But the fact is that all of my concerns were addressed promptly and without a fuss, and I felt no impetus to take them public. Don't we teach our students to try to resolve issues and conflicts themselves, before involving third parties?

      (You mention Dr. Royal's Institute speech video as an instance of public criticism being shut down. As far as I know, that video was on Dr. Royal's own YouTube account, and it was taken private, not deleted. Unless you know more than I do, it's disingenuous to suggest that TFA was the reason for this change.)

      - I said I was a "successful first year teacher" because I was proud of my accomplishments as a TEACHER this year, not necessarily as a corps member, and because part of this success as a teacher necessitated looking critically at TFA's methods and being selective about the ones that would really benefit students. Do you seriously believe that I've been brainwashed to label myself as successful in order to protect the image of Mother TFA?

      - You inferred correctly, I did live with a corps member this past year. However, both of us being introverts, we didn't talk much--and when we did, it would usually be about things outside of school, like what we'd been reading lately, new places we'd explored, how church was going, etc. (You know, normal people conversations.) Please don't assume that you know what my life looked like just because I was in TFA.

      - Finally, I believe that you're not ignorant. In fact, I believe that you've done more research than both the average corps member and the average critic of TFA, which is why you have so much to say. I think you need to realize, though, that just as those you're criticizing can be narrow-minded, you too can be narrow-minded. And that tunes can be changed more than once, believe it or not.

  7. Katie-You've got to figure out what you want to be. A blogger who posts interesting comments, reflections, and facts. Or a blogger who is constantly tongue and cheek, full of hyperbole, and prone to misrepresentations. Right now, you are the latter. And that's fine as long as you admit to this and realize that you aren't really commenting on actual truths and facts.

    You assume that everyone ever associated with TFA is the same. You assume that there exists two finite camps the "education reform" "anti-education reform" You associate an organization requiring their members to dress professionally with cult-like behavior. (I guess this means that there are a lot more cults than I expected). You pretend to know things about an organization's inner-workings (dissent isn't encouraged!-have you ever seen a TFA survey? been to a TFA meeting? ). You make ridiculous comments like "they are accountable to no one." (just like any other non-profit, there is a board of directions and the federal funding can remove its funding whenever it chooses).

    Give me a break. No wonder even education is so polarized right now. Because people who don't have context read your blog and think "wow...this TFA...they are crazy...there is nothing they are doing right..they are dangerous...everything they do is fact...they might try some mass suicide...or maybe kill a congressmen in South America." (I'd be impressed if you got these references)

    1. Katie, I agree w/ Andy in that I think you have some great insights and you're doing/saying necessary, great, critical things. But sometimes your tone and angle is polarizing instead of building toward something more positive. This is an example of something that is distracting and doesn't really add any value to the conversation.

  8. You're right: when I worked for Teach For America and when I was a corps member, there was joking about drinking the Kool-Aid and saying we were part of a cult. I also agree with the commenter above who wrote that the descriptions of cult behavior could be applied to other things too. What first came to mind for me was college; most everybody I know has a fierce devotion to their undergraduate institution. Of course, colleges are not entrenched in the field of education/pedagogy in the way that you mentioned in your response. But what about unions? They exhibit groupthink (or, at the very least, single-mindedness) to a significant degree.

  9. A cult and cohort have many similarities no? Many ed programs at schools label groups of incoming students cohorts. Is there a problem with that? Surely many organizations, private and nonprofit, exhibit cult like behaviors. Any church? Lol. A cult by definition is not harmful. Of course there are many examples of cults doing bad things, but there are "cults" by definition that do great things.

    Have I drank the Kool-Aid? Certainly not. Are there things I disagree with? Of course. Have I voiced those concerns? You betcha. But just like there are movies like "Waiting For Superman" that might misrepresent certain things, a post like this doesn't help anyone, especially when such broad generalizations are made. As a TFA CM finishing up Institute, some of the things offend me no doubt about it.

    Katie, you are from the North Shore. There are such broad generalizations about that area and people from there. I could attempt to assume so much about you; how would that be constructive?

  10. My first reaching job was on Chicago's west side. It was here that I began to develop the judgement that tfa was actually hurting students development. Students need stability, not a revolving door of inexperienced teachers who give their two years and leave. In all my years with CPS I have only known of one tfa who stayed after her two years were up. Why she said she stayed was because it saddened her that students first comment in June was "Will you be back next year?" rather than the traditional ,"Have a nice summer." that she had grown up saying to her students.

  11. This blog entry has inspired me to start my own blog about my horrific experiences in Teach for America. I was a CM in Baltimore for the 2009-2010 school year, and suffice it to say my experience was so traumatic and painful that I suffered from several mental health issues (including flareups of old ones that I'd seemingly got past after high school) and was unable to talk much about it- the vast majority of my friends at my current grad school don't even know I was in Teach for America. I'm glad you wrote this. By the way, I strongly suspect one of the people you mentioned was the principal at the school I worked at for the year. The only good thing about that year was my students, put it that way.

  12. I have to agree. I was a TfA Corps Member, one of the ones who didn't make it through the two years. In fact, I was let go by the school and by TfA. The description of TfA as an insular, cult-ish organization is spot on. I was what they call 'non-traditional' (older, second career, family, life and priorities outside of TfA) and was constantly uncomfortable with the indoctrination that went on. One particular experience I remember was a 2nd year corps explaining how 'your kids are the last thing you think of when you go to sleep and the first thing you think of when you wake up.' My (unspoken) response was to think, 'no, that would be my daughters penultimate, wife last, and then wife first, daughters second.'

  13. TFA is a joke and scam. Some states have alternative teaching certifications which are much better. TFA is more focused at creating jobs rather than preparing someone to be a good teacher.

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