Teach for America’s Mission, Vision, and Core Values: A Closer Look
by Lydia Bentley - May 17, 2013
TFA has become entrenched as a powerful force in education, shaping classrooms through its teachers and influencing, to some degree, how our society thinks about teachers as levers to address educational injustice. This commentary focuses on one of the means by which TFA influences society’s conceptualization of teaching- the message that TFA broadcasts via its official statements on its organization’s web site. While TFA’s website is comprehensive, and the totality of text is lengthy, this paper limits its discussion to the mission, vision, and core values statements as content for review. The purpose is to uncover the implicit, and sometimes explicit, model that TFA puts forth as descriptive of how teachers work to address the inequity and inequality in education. To fulfill this purpose, the discussion is developed in the following order: the limitations and affordances of reviewing organizations’ official statements are considered; the TFA framework is summarized in order to uncover its model of teaching as a lever to address inequity and inequality; TFA’s framework and model are critiqued using selected perspectives from the literature; and, a few conclusions and implications are put forth.
In 1990, a charter corps of 500 committed recent college graduates joined Teach For America and began fueling the movement to eliminate educational inequity (Teach for America, 2012). Coming from this relatively humble beginning, TFA has grown into a powerful force in education, shaping classrooms through its teachers and influencing, to some degree, how society thinks about teachers as levers to address educational injustice. This commentary focuses on one of the means by which TFA influences societys conceptualization of teaching- the message that TFA broadcasts via its official statements on its web site. While TFAs website is comprehensive, this paper limits its discussion to the mission, vision, and core values statements as content for review. The purpose is to uncover and critique the model that TFA puts forth as descriptive of how teachers work to address the inequity and inequality in education. To fulfill this purpose, the discussion is developed in the following order: the utility of reviewing organizations official statements is considered; the TFA framework is summarized in order to uncover its model of teaching as a lever to address inequity and inequality; TFAs framework and model are critiqued using selected perspectives from the literature; and, a few conclusions and implications are put forth.
Official statements such as the mission, vision, and core values of an organization may not accurately reflect the attitudes of every individual, but they do represent a message that organizational leadership is willing to present to a broad audience. These official statements can function as carriers of culture, ethos, and ideology (Swales & Rogers, 1995, p. 226). Illustrative of this, mission-like statements have regularly been reviewed as data to indicate the values, identity, purpose, and principles espoused, at least at some level, by an organization (e.g., Aust, 2004; Young, 2001; Fairhurst, Jordan, and Neuwirth, 1997). This commentary reviews the mission, vision, and core values statements of TFA with the assumption that they represent what the leadership, if not every individual stakeholder, believe and want to communicate to the innumerable members of society who encounter these statements. These three statements are reviewed together because, as is often the case with mission-related statements, their content exhibits coherence and interdependence (Fairhurst, Jordan, and Neuwirth, 1997).
TFAS FRAMEWORK AND MODEL
As culled from their mission, vision, and core values, TFAs framework of teaching as a force of change for social justice can be condensed to the following statement: Poverty creates the problem of educational inequity and inequality which can be solved, in part, by TFA teachers who possess the personal qualities and who receive the specialized support required to improve the achievement levels of students in low-income communities. The succinctness of this statement belies the amount of text it summarizes from TFAs website. In their posted statements, TFA cites the effects of poverty in low-income communities as presenting an extra challenge to millions of children (Teach for America, 2012). This challenge manifests itself in the significant achievement gap between low-income children and their wealthier peers (Teach for America, 2012). Nevertheless, TFA contends that change is possible and that a critical component of the solution rests with classroom teachers like the ones they recruit who are, above all, leaders (Teach for America, 2012). These leaders, referred to as our corps by TFA, are committed teachers for the duration of their two years of service (Teach for America, 2012). Based on the mission, vision, and core values, Figure 1 presents a process model reflecting TFAs framework for how teachers can impact educational inequity and inequality. In the next section, the critique addresses parts of this model: first it considers TFAs view of poverty and the educational problem it creates; then, it takes a closer look at TFAs proposed partial solution to this problem.
CRITIQUE OF TFAS FRAMEWORK
POVERTY AND ITS PROBLEMS
The catalyst to the problem TFA was created to target is poverty. According to TFAs statements, it appears that poverty is the defining characteristic of the low-income communities into which they send TFA teachers (Teach for America, 2012). The danger in this lies in the tendency to view these communities solely in terms of what they lack; however, as Yosso (2005) points out, these communities offer several forms of cultural wealth (e.g., aspirational capital, resistant capital, social capital). This same danger lurks behind TFAs mention of the significant achievement gap between low-income children and their wealthier peers that results from the conditions created by poverty (Teach for America, 2012). An oft-used term, the achievement gap is here used to bring attention to the fact that many poorer children do not have access to a quality education and are not receiving the schooling they need. While this may be true, poorer children can be identified by more than their test scores. Speaking of the Black-White achievement gap, which resembles the gap between low-income and wealthier students, Anderson (2001) contends that descriptions which focus entirely on achievement differences ignore the important and sustained victories and strengths of minority school children and thereby omit or downplay the possibilities for change inherent in minority families and communities(p. 1). As TFA defines the problem they seek to address, they could benefit from more clearly recognizing that the children, families, and communities most directly affected by these poverty-related problems are also the ones who possess within themselves critical components of the solution.
TFA DELIVERS A SOLUTION
While TFAs mission-related statements may overlook the important part that community residents play in solving educational inequity and inequality, they clearly emphasize how their own teachers have an influential role in alleviating these problems. When referring to their teachers, TFA repeatedly uses the term leader as evidenced in the following phrase: We recruit a diverse group of leaders (Teach for America, 2012). This conceptualization of TFA teachers suggests that the personal quality of leadership contributes to their success in the classroom. However, Kennedy (2010) warns against this attribution of teaching quality to the characteristics of teachers themselves as it ignores situational factors that may have a strong bearing on the quality of the teaching practices (p. 591). For example, possible situational factors such as having to enter a school community as an outsider and not having any experience with diverse classrooms could potentially impact the teaching practices of even the best leaders. Contributing to the image of TFA teachers as outsiders, TFA tellingly refers to them as our corps of teachers (Teach for America, 2012). These teachers belong to TFA and form a team with their fellow TFA teachers, but the official statements fail to advocate that these teachers form an equally strong collective with the staff at their local schools. This is unfortunate, given research findings that suggest that collective responsibility for student learning and cooperation among teachers within a school have a positive association with students academic achievement (Lee & Smith, 1996). Promoting a primary allegiance to TFA may not foster collectivity and cooperation among TFA teachers and non-TFA colleagues. Another potential hindrance to collectivity is the service term of TFAs teachers whose commitment to their local school can end after a mere two years. Moore Johnson, Kraft, and Papay (2012) assert that schools and students pay a price when new teachers leave the profession after only 2 or 3 years, just when they have acquired valuable teaching experience, and that persistent turnover also disrupts efforts to build a strong organizational culture and to sustain coordinated instructional programs (p. 1).
CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS
The main concerns with the mission-related statements displayed on TFAs website can be traced to a) their overemphasis on poverty as the catalyst of educational inequity and unequal access to quality schooling, and b) their glossing over the potentially negative implications of their statements. Firstly, the catalyst to the problem TFA was created to target is not merely poverty; it is what poverty signifies in our society (e.g., the lack of access to quality educational services). If we consider poverty as a symptom of the problem, which is an unjust society in which quality of life is a luxury good, then maybe TFA should modify its image as the sender of emissaries who are the central rescuers of children from poverty, leading them towards an escape route that moves them closer to, presumably, what has been upheld as the middle class American dream. Perhaps TFA could make more sense if it worked from within public schools and communities to lend assistance to the primary agents of local stakeholders who refuse to acquiesce to the meaning of poverty as it is foisted upon them and who forego an escape route in order to own their communities, their schools, and their future success. Secondly, TFAs statements gloss over possible unintended consequences of their implemented mission, such as the displacement of local would-be teachers who are not members of their two-year corps of leaders. The question is, are TFAs largely Caucasian teachers preventing local applicants, who may share a culture and background with students, from obtaining employment at schools where they would happily stay and work for longer than two years? What seems like a reasonable plan to increase student achievement may, in fact, result in one of the same unintended consequences that resulted from school desegregation years ago. As Foster (1997) points out, desegregation resulted in the displacement of many Black teachers. Of course, TFA, like desegregation, is well-intended, and in many ways, certainly advances the cause of social justice. However, the framework from which TFA operates, as conveyed in and interpreted from their mission-related statements, has implications that may contradict their well-intentioned purposes.
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Foster, M. (1997). Introduction. Black teachers on teaching (pp. xv-li). New York: New Press.
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Teach for America. (2012). [Several links to mission, vision, and core values from the homepage]. Retrieved from https://www.teachforamerica.org/
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Figure 1. The TFA model of how poverty creates the problem of educational inequity and inequality which then acted upon by current and former TFA teachers, yielding an outcome of improved student achievement in the long and short term.