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Teach For America and protesting Harvard students open dialogue

TFA founder Wendy Kopp (The Washington Post)

Earlier this month I wrote about some Harvard University students in a group called United Students Against Sweatshops who wrote a letter to Harvard President Drew Faust asking her to sever ties with Teach For America unless TFA made big changes. It didn’t, and the ties remain, but the students and TFA have been talking and may sit down and meet face to face. Here’s the exchange of letters between TFA and USAS.

Here’s the first letter to TFA leaders from United States Against Sweatshops:

Elisa Villanueva Beard, Matt Kramer
Chief Executive Officers
Wendy Kopp
Board Chair & Founder
Teach for America
315 W 36th St, 7th Floor
New York, NY 10018


Dear CEO Kramer, CEO Villanueva Beard, and Board Chair Kopp,
We, United Students Against Sweatshops write to you today as the largest studentworker Organization in the US with affiliates on over 150 campuses across the country. USAS students are deeply concerned with the behavior of Teach for America. TFA’s shift from an organization providing volunteers to overcome teacher shortages to an organization that deprofessionalizes the teaching career and displaces veteran teachers has forced us as students to ask our universities to reconsider relationships with Teach for America.
As you know over the past few years there has been an epidemic of school closings, teacher firings, and union busting aimed at teachers across the nation. This epidemic has been most visible in New Orleans, Chicago, Newark, and Cleveland and is set to spread to many other regions. The attack on public education in each of these cities has been directly connected to Teach for America. For instance: in Chicago, at the same time that the budget for public education was being slashed and teachers were being laid off, the Board of Education voted to increase its payment to TFA from $600,000 to nearly 1.6 million and to add up to 325 new TFA recruits to Chicago Public Schools classrooms, in addition to 270 second year ‘teacher interns’”1 Similarly in New Orleans, directly after Hurricane Katrina when most of the voting population was displaced, Teach for America was found to have pushed through legislation that would bankrupt public education and fire teachers.2 Now, in Newark, a plan has been uncovered to fire 700 career teachers and replace many of them with TFA members, led by Superintendent Cami Anderson — a TFA alumnus.3 The list of examples goes on and on.
TFA’s outrageous activities and political agenda are dependent upon universities lending their good names and the public’s goodwill toward the institution of higher education. If our schools stand up for the values which we believe in, and reject further institutional relationships with TFA, the plans discussed above will be halted. Across the nation, students are standing up to demand that our universities stop propping up TFA. Without our universities’ involvement as “alternative certifiers” for TFA as required under federal and state law, without our special scholarships for TFA alumni, and without our blind institutional promotion for their recruiting, and other special partnerships, TFA cannot keep pushing its agenda of dismantling public education.
In the past, USAS campaigns have led to hundreds of schools in the US cutting contracts with corporations like Nike, Sodexo, and Russell. It is in the best interest of your organization to take our power as grassroots student organizers very seriously.
The attacks upon quality public education are accelerating and teachers, students, and parents have begun severely criticising TFA’s agenda and the corporate education reform movement more broadly. We will demand our universities cut their relationships with TFA unless they improve in specific, important ways:
1. TFA must only operate in areas where there are teacher shortages. TFA was founded to fill the national teacher shortage. Since 2008, somewhere in the range of 500,000 teachers have been laid off from public schools 4 — because of the budget shortfalls and the growing privatization movement. There no longer is a national teacher shortage, which was the original
impetus for the formation of TFA. The organization must return to its original mission of filling teacher shortages where only they occur, instead of pursuing aggressive expansion that dismantles public education and displaces career teachers.
2. TFA must give aspiring teachers adequate education and training. The organization must transform itself to encourage career teaching instead of business positions, and must hire teachers from the localities where it is filling vacancies instead of sending people unlikely to stay in the community. These teachers must be certified through an official Teacher Preparation
3. TFA must cut ties with corporations like Exxon Mobil and JP Morgan Chase. Teach for America cannot claim to fight for underserved communities when they partner with the same corporations that tear these communities apart. If TFA ever wishes to be a force for social justice, TFA cannot partner with such immensely harmful companies.
We hope to receive a response from you as to whether or not you will make these changes by Wednesday, October 8. Our student members are already organizing and educating their peers around TFA’s devastating community impacts, but if you meet our demands we will be happy to end our campaign. After October 8, we will be launching more escalated national action if you do not promise
organizational shifts to meet our demands.
We can no longer allow these attacks on students, teachers, and local community’s public education to continue, and we eagerly anticipate your response.
United Students Against Sweatshops
1 Mitch Dudek, Chicago Sun Times. “CPS calls teacher’s mom to tell him he’s getting laid off
2 Campell Robertson. New York Times “Louisiana Illegally Fired 7,500 Teachers
3 Bob Braun, Personal Blog. “Newark: 700 teachers may be laid off, many replaced by TFA
4 Executive Office of the President. “Teacher Jobs at Risk


Here’s TFA’s response:

Thank you for your letter. As fellow deep believers in the promise of public education, we’re glad to be able to engage with you and the organization you represent. While the day-to-day work of our respective organizations is very different, your mission to see people “valued as whole human beings” resonates deeply with us.
As always, we’d be open to meeting to learn more about your concerns. If you’d like to share details on your availability and who should be in attendance from USAS, we can schedule a time to sit down. In the meantime, we wanted to provide a few reflections to your concerns, all of which we take very seriously and have historically engaged on publically. We’ve noticed that some of your local chapters at Harvard and elsewhere have already begun to pursue efforts to organize against TFA. We’d be happy to engage with them directly, as well, and believe this discourse is essential to shift the education conversation in a positive direction.
To your question about shortages, our program exists to meet local demand for teachers and long-term education leaders. In many of our partner districts, this demand stems from a severe shortage of available candidates for low-income schools generally. In others, the shortages are specific to certain subject areas or grade levels. In some, we serve as an additional source of teaching talent for principals to choose from. Whatever the local landscape, our teachers apply only for open positions and currently make up less than 1% of the total teaching population. There has been a fair amount of misinformation spread around about the details of these situations, and we regret that some of it has made its way to you. These links will take you to the details on our work in NewarkChicago and New Orleans.
We believe that students are best served when principals have access to the most robust possible talent pipeline – whether through our program, other alternative certification routes, or the schools of education that continue to prepare the vast majority of our nation’s teachers. We aim to be one small part of a well-trained, supported and celebrated national teaching force.
On the training and support side, while we strive to continuously improve our program, principal and parent feedback plus a growing body of quantitative research tells us that our corps members make a consistent, positive impact in their classrooms and communities. We’re also proud of the growing diversity of our corps. Currently, TFA is one of the nation’s largest producers of African American and Latino teachers. This year, a third of our first year corps members are the first in their families to graduate from college, and half identify as people of color. We see these individuals as tremendous role models for their students and remarkable potential change agents for the cities and towns they call home.
Finally, to your note about sponsors, our corporate supporters are one piece of what makes recruiting, training and developing these individuals possible. They are part of a much larger network of individuals, companies, foundations, state and federal government that have supported our efforts. We’re glad they’re choosing to invest in education.
Today, nearly 90 percent of our 37,000 alumni work in education or in low-income communities. With so far to go to deliver on the promise of equal educational opportunity, we believe in their impact, along with that of the hundreds of thousands of traditionally trained teachers, community activists, parents, and advocates they lock arms with every day. With their example in mind, we will continue to improve at every point along our training continuum and in the ways we invest in our alumni long term. Just in March, we announced two pilots, one to provide juniors who join Teach For America with an additional year of training and the other to support alumni in years 3-5 in the classroom.
We look forward to the opportunity to sit down or to connect your local chapter leads with any of ours. Without a doubt, uniting in support of students is in the best interest of everyone.



 Here’s the response from United Students Against Sweatshops to TFA:

Dear CEO Kramer, CEO Villanueva Beard, and Board Chair Kopp:
Thank you for your prompt response to our letter. We have appreciated the opportunity for our locals to meet with representatives from Teach for America, and we hope that this conversation continues with more locals across the country into the near future. In addition, we request a national meeting with all of you within the next month.
We agree that students are best served when schools have access to the best teachers possible. However, we believe that the best teachers for students are lifelong teachers with long-term commitments to the specific needs of local communities. Teacher turnover, on the other hand, directly harms student achievement and TFA is exacerbating this problem. While high turnover rates are negatively reflected in “student performance data,” we know that the developmental and psychological ramifications of high turnover rates for students are much more devastating than any standardized test could reflect.
Students, especially those in low-income communities and communities of color, need continuity and this is something which TFA simply cannot provide. By continuing to send corp members to regions without teacher shortages, Teach for America is displacing the only individuals who can: life-long career teachers.
Providing corp members to regions without teacher shortages has devastated local communities by enabling rampant school closings and teacher layoffs, which have helped to catalyze the dangerous phenomena of weakening teachers associations and privatizing public schools. Far too frequently, TFA corp members are taking over recently vacated teaching positions from unnecessary layoffs in new charter schools formed in the wake of public school closings.
In Chicago, for instance, TFA has very directly enabled the closing of forty-nine unionized  traditional public schools, which are now being replaced by privately controlled charter schools that are highly staffed by TFA corp members. Teach for America is thereby helping to rapidly shift the control of public education into private hands, which provides the call to action for USAS students nationwide.
We must reassert our first demand and urge Teach for America to stop sending corp members to communities without teacher shortages. Instead, corp members should only be sent to regions designated by the US Department of Education as “Teacher Shortage Areas.”
Based on our locals’ discussions with TFA representatives, if there is one thing which we all can agree, it is that corp members are insufficiently trained. We appreciate TFA’s small pilot efforts to increase corp members’ training. However, we stand firmly by the previously expressed need for holistic reform and improvements to training by partnering with local teacher preparation programs across the board.
Similarly, we appreciate Teach for America’s recent work to make the corp more inclusive and representative. We are pleased that TFA is, in your words, “one of the nation’s largest producers of African American and Latino teachers.” However, such individual-level changes and pilot programs fail to adequately address the adverse structural effects which we describe that Teach for America is having on public education in working class communities and communities of color across the country.
To your point that nearly 90% of all TFA alumni work in education or low-income communities after their two years of service, we believe that this widely shared figure is highly misleading. On our university campuses, we see that TFA alumni are very well represented at professional graduate schools, such as our business schools and law schools. Digging deeper, we realize that this statistic lumps far too many categories together in an attempt to overestimate the figure. Furthermore, we realize that this statistic comes from a survey, which according to an e-mail from CEO Kramer, only 23,000 alumni responded to, making it very problematic for the organization to claim the figure as representative of all TFA alumni. As we know that TFA has been accused of inflating data in its favor in the past, we request that TFA collect and publish more precise and honest figures.
Ultimately, we hope to work toward policies at our universities which provide support and resources for individuals with lifelong commitments to public education, rather than merely two years of service.
Again, we appreciate you for responding to our concerns and openly engaging in a dialogue with members of USAS locals. Please be in touch with us to arrange a national meeting this month.
Meanwhile, we will continue our campaign and work to sever our universities’ connections with Teach for America until we see signs of meaningful policy change which address our concerns.
United Students Against Sweatshops

And here is a response from TFA co-director Matt Kramer, addressed to USAS activist Blake McGhghy:

Dear Blake,
Thank you for your response to our letter. I am glad to hear that you’ll sit down with us. I would welcome you and your colleagues to our offices in New York if that would be convenient, but I am equally happy with another location if you’d prefer. While Elisa is out on maternity leave following the birth of her son, I’ll have to represent the both of us, and may bring a few of my colleagues who are directly involved in our work preparing and supporting teachers across the country, so that they can hear from you directly.  Some dates that could work in the next month are: 10/28, 10/29, 10/30, 11/11, 11/12, and 11/13. Given the role that Randi Weingarten and the AFT are playing in supporting your efforts, we’d also welcome her if you’d like to encourage her to join us.
We’re sorry to hear that you continue to have such concerns about our program and that you see this campaign as the most productive avenue to improving outcomes for low-income students. We agree wholeheartedly that our country needs more career teachers committed to high-need schools and see our 10,000 corps members and 11,000 alumni teachers as one part of the solution. Our corps members work in public schools, are hired by local principals, and lead their students to consistent academic gains. Compared to first year teachers in general, they are more likely to teach a second year and the majority choose to teach beyond their initial two-year commitment. Along with the much-needed continuity you cite, our teachers also bring subject-area expertise, diversity of experience, and demonstrated commitment to academic excellence.
The impact of great teachers can’t be overstated. But we also think it’s unfair to ask teachers to solve the problems plaguing our education system all on their own. We need innovative solutions to address the big challenges that manifest in the classroom but didn’t start there – from poverty and unemployment, to hunger and health. We’re proud to see so many of our alumni working to tackle these issues every day – as principals, community activists, district administrators, policy makers, elected officials and parent advocates.
With a third of our 2014 teachers joining us as the first in their families to go to college – many now returning to the cities, towns and even schools where they grew up – we’re as inspired as ever by what’s possible. Like anyone committed to doing the hard work of public education, we see these individuals as incredible potential change agents – now positioned to educate and empower the next generation of leaders-in-the making on whom our shared future depends.
We’ve provided detailed information to address your specific concerns here. Much of this was covered in our initial response but, given the importance of the matters at hand, we wanted to be sure to address each point as thoroughly as possible. I hope you’ll take a moment to review such that we can have a productive conversation, rooted in fact, mutual respect, and honest reflection.
Matt Kramer