Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Dangers of Teach For America Indoctrination

Now, I have a lot of gripes with Teach For America. (You don't say, Ms. Katie!) I think their 5 week training stinks, and is bad for kids. I think their ties to the neoliberal education reform movement are dangerous and impossible to decouple from all that TFA is. I think their funding, their lobbying efforts, their twisted PR "research" are all crap. I want to strangle every expansion effort they push through even as veteran educators are laid off. They are anti-union. Ridiculously so.

Yet, one effect of TFA that does not get enough coverage, although it's often referenced tangentially, is the power of TFA indoctrination. (But oh! was it in effect at the #TFA25 celebration held over the weekend! Another post, perhaps...)

No one wants to admit that they have been indoctrinated. And we all have to some extent. For the most part, we do not even know that we don't know much of what has been spoon fed to us through the media, cultural norms, or existing power structures. None of us is immune, including myself.

However, what TFA does is something unique. And it's measurable. Think of any encounter you've had with an edreform "true believer". How many times have you thought to yourself, "must have been TFA", then after doing a quick Google search been right! This has happened to me too many times. Way too many times.

Let's take an example. A few weeks back, there was a truly shocking commentary in our Chicago education magazine Catalyst Chicago that was titled How Bailey Reimer's kindergartners came to love testing. Most educators who saw this piece were appalled. Look at the comments.

I know when I saw this piece, the very first thought I had was...she's TFA. And lo and behold, she just completed her TFA stint. TFA's influence on this young woman's ideas were stark, obvious, undeniable. Now that indoctrination process is reinforced by other neoliberal organizations such as being placed in a charter school and then also being recruited into Teach Plus-a Gates funded faux teacher voice group. But that's the thing with TFA, it's often a one-two punch. TFA-in many areas-operates inside a nexus of neoliberal edreform ideology. TFAers are completely isolated from alternative view points even as they are beaten up by a ridiculously arduous summer training filled with unnecessary sleep deprivation and mental health harming stress. Then they are thrown-unprepared-into some of the most challenging workplaces in our country. There is quite literally no time to stop and think about the bigger picture and that is intentional.

When all you have ever heard is "testing data is necessary to teach", then this statement makes sense:

"To get to a point where my students appreciate and understand testing, I had to first appreciate it myself. I love tests that give me relevant, timely information about how my students are doing, from how many letter names they know to how many words per minute they read."
Suddenly, what "good teaching" is gets warped into the image of neoliberal ideology based on a bunch of "data-driven" drivel. Most teachers, especially veteran educators could never, ever say this line: "Of course, 5-year-olds don’t come to school automatically loving testing. As educators, it’s our job to build that appreciation and understanding." No! No, it's not. But we can see how it was TFA, combined with the charter school environment, that made this statement real for this teacher. This mindset is dangerous.

I believe there are number of reasons why this indoctrination process is so effective. 1) They use the time-tested method of breaking you down to build you up in the Bootcamp summer training. 2) The recruitment process onward is a series of indoctrination sessions. And perhaps most importantly 3) TFA's claim of being the "best and brightest" means any other opposing viewpoint is immediately dismissed on the basis of not being TFA magic.

Right now stop and do a google search for "how to indoctrinate". No seriously, do it. What pops up? Article after article describing how to lure folks into a group with promises and lies about the actual purpose of the organization, slowly strip down any autonomy or sense of self through boot camp like conditions, then carefully isolate and fill with desired ideas. This is exactly what TFA does. Exactly, like they copied the "indoctrination" playbook. Colleges of education don't do this, unions don't do this, but TFA uses the most blatantly cult-like process they can to get the desired effect.

Something perhaps unique to TFA is their claim of being the "best and the brightest". They recruit so heavily on college campuses in order to have an extremely large number of applicants so they can sell the idea that their program is extra selective. This elitism is actually very damaging as it sets up TFA as the holders of all knowledge and all others in education as "less than". TFA recruits are therefore encouraged to only listen to TFA insiders. TFA even has processes within the recruitment and training process to rein in any lost sheep or depose of troublemakers. (This resulting exclusivity is part of a larger problem among elites which Chris Hayes writes about in his book, The Twilight of the Elites. I wrote about this phenomena in education: Twilight of the EdReformers. When non-TFA teachers complain about TFA arrogance, this reinforced elitism is what they experiencing.)

When you look around and see TFA alums in all the edreform-inspired non-profits, running charter networks, serving as aides to high-ranking government officials, getting appointed to important state and national-level edpolicy positions, or getting elected themselves through the political wing of TFA, suddenly the impact of this indoctrination process becomes exponentially damaging. I would make the case that the success of edreform over the past decade or so, especially under the Obama administration, would not have been nearly as pervasive if TFA did not exist. 

I often think to myself, if I had done TFA, would I now be a corporate reform cheerleader? It's possible. Even likely. That's how powerful this indoctrination process is. I am thankful every day that I came into teaching through a full Masters-level teaching program and that I'm in Chicago where my union is strong and clear on the issues of edreform.

Thankfully, not everyone from TFA remains a true believer. But just wait til those who are see this post....


  1. Katie, you nailed it! See our analysis of the magical thinking of the 'best and brightest" as TFA has mis-used it:

  2. I can set up my new idea from this post. It gives in depth information. Thanks for this valuable information for all,.. indoctrination