How 'Teach for America,' Once Focused on Improving Education, Lost Its Way

Students at McDonogh 15 School for the Creative Arts, a charter school in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Cheryl Gerber)

It started out as a bold idea. It was going to take some of America’s best and brightest, convince them to work as a teacher for just two years with some of the kids most in need of quality education and positive role models, and begin the process of radically changing the face of public education. Teach for America started out as a radical idea that tipped over the apple cart of traditional education — but now? Now it’s just another mouthpiece for leftist education rhetoric.

In remaking itself, TFA has subtly downgraded the principles that had won it allies across the spectrum. George W. Bush, Mitch McConnell, John Cornyn, Chris Christie, and Meg Whitman are a few of the Republicans who championed TFA. The group attracted such boldface names, and hundreds of millions of dollars from some of the largest American firms and philanthropies, because it stood for a simple but powerful idea: that teacher quality is the decisive factor in the educational outcomes produced by schools.

Judging by its interventions in recent debates, it isn’t all that clear that senior TFA executives still believe this. 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.


Today’s Teach for America is a different story. TFA’s leaders have now fully enlisted the organization in the culture war—to the detriment of its mission and the high-minded civic sensibility that used to animate its work.

This has been most visible in TFA’s response to the 2016 election. TFA chief executive Elisa Villanueva Beard, who took over from Kopp four years ago, doesn’t bother to mask either her progressivism or her revulsion at the new administration. When, a couple of weeks after the election, the president-elect announced his choice of Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education, Beard’s response was swift and cold.

A November 23 TFA news release began by decrying Trump’s “indisputably hostile and racially charged campaign” and called on DeVos to uphold “diversity, equity, and inclusiveness.” The statement went on to outline 11 TFA demands. 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.

The whole thing is an interesting, yet depressing, read. Yet it was somewhat inevitable.

Any group dedicated to education will invariably find itself going down the same path unless the group actively works against it from the beginning. Leftists view education as their sole domain, and they want no one but fellow travelers stepping into their protected waters.

Take this tweet from Bethany Mandel, a senior contributor at The Federalist.

I immediately asked her if this was for real, and was assured it was. I said I found the whole thing mind-boggling, but I don’t know why I did. This is par for the course with the left. They don’t want conservatives to do anything selfless, probably because it shatters their worldview.

Teach for America failed in one important way. In created no requirement to maintain distance from the political education establishment. Instead, they have become allies of the teacher’s unions that had mucked up the American educational system so badly. Leftists will invariably look at any group that touches their turf as land destined to be conquered.

That’s what happened with Teach for America, and it’ll happen with any other group that comes along.