II originally came to academia not because I necessarily wanted to be an academic but because I was angry and confused. After about eight years working in public education, it had become increasingly clear to me that schooling for low-income, students of color had become a numbers game. Standardized tests, ostensibly developed as a proxy by which to measure student learning, seemed to have become the purpose for schooling itself. I could not understand how seemingly well-intentioned people were willing to trust in and play along. I returned to graduate school in hopes of developing the language and framework to understand and speak to this problem and to hopefully gain the credentials that would allow me to be heard by people who are making policy decisions.
For context, I first entered the field of education through the organization Teach For America (TFA). I applied for TFA in 2002 because as a college student, TFA recruiters convinced me that they would prepare me to be a highly effective teacher in a school and district that greatly needed the expertise of people like me; inexperienced, untrained, recent college graduates. I was young, disturbed about the education inequities I had recently been made aware of in a college course, and looking for something meaningful to do after graduation.
Over my two years in TFA in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I developed a number of lasting concerns. While this was before the charterization of urban school districts and prior to TFA’s conjoining with market based reforms, there was intensive pressure in these early years of NCLB, to produce test scores at any cost. These pressures came from the school in which I worked but even more so from TFA, whose training focused primarily on classroom management, assessment, and an ideology that conflated my students’ test scores, my own self-worth, and the rhetoric of social justice. It was difficult to implement these pedagogies while still developing meaningful relationships and honoring my students’ culture, identity, and humanity. I grew wary as I watched a number of my peers misrepresent or inflate their students’ successes in ways that seemed both conscious and subconscious.
Through my subsequent experiences working in schools and in my graduate studies, I came to realize that TFA is not only an ineffective Band-Aid effort, but is also deeply implicated and central to the neoliberal overhaul of public education that all but suffocates the social justice and democratic purposes of schooling. The organization has done an unparalleled job of recruiting recent college graduates, capitalizing on these grads’ passions for ending educational inequity, and training them to believe that market-based policies and pedagogies that increase test scores are in service of social justice.
I realized that I had a particular privilege and responsibility, as a former TFA teacher, to speak out and investigate further. In my dissertation study, I spent a year researching TFA affiliated, “No Excuses” charter schools in New Orleans, a city that has become, since Hurricane Katrina, an experimental laboratory for market-based policies and a campground for TFA teachers to develop.
Throughout my research, I met a number of people who, like me, had deep concerns about neoliberalism, market-based reform, and the role of TFA. As a graduate student, I had organized a number of film screenings to encourage public debate about current trends in education reform. I wanted to do something similar on a national scale specific to people’s growing concerns about TFA. Along with my friend and colleague Kerry Kretchmar, we decided to hold the “Organizing Resistance to TFA and their Role in Privatization” at the biannual Free Minds Free People conference, a national event convened by the Education for Liberation Network. We invited parents and activists Ashana Bigard and Ruth Idakula, veteran teacher Stephanie Anders, and TFA affiliates Hannah Sadtler, Derek Roguski, Hannah Price, and Rebecca Radding, most of whom I had met through my research in New Orleans to collaborate in organizing the event. We hoped to bring together the voices of all of those who were concerned, raise public awareness, and hopefully shift the conversation in the media. [For media coverage of this event, check out Valerie Strauss' blog in the Washington Post, this article in Popular Resistance, an article in The Progressive's Public School Shakedown series about the TFA Truth Squad, and this Truthout report. For updates on the group's work and additional resources, check out the Resistance to TFA Facebook page.]
I have just moved to North Carolina for my first faculty position as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Elementary Education at North Carolina State University. I am excited about my new position and the promise of continuing to explore my research interests. I am also anxious about how I will balance the publishing requirements of a tenure track position with my commitment to publishing for mass consumption and the community collaboration that fuels and fulfills me. I am committed to continuing to work alongside the incredible and inspiring people I have met in New Orleans, but I also hope that I will begin to develop connections and learn from the many people who are working to challenge the issues that ail my new state, one which has waged a war on public education, assaulted voting rights, and continues to contribute to the school to prison pipeline by being one of two states that prosecutes 16 and 17 year olds as adults.
I am still finding my many voices. I can only imagine that this will become increasingly more challenging as the pressures of the academy intensify and as I engage with more people. I hope to do this by continuing to stay connected to and work alongside those who are most directly affected by educational policy decisions; teachers, parents, and students. I hope that in doing this I will not lose the voice that feels the most natural for me to speak about the things that concern me the most; educational equity and social justice.