TFA looks to capitalize on School District of Philadelphia crisis

Like many other urban districts across the country, the School District of Philadelphia ended the last academic year in a financial crisis–one that resulted in a “doomsday budget” which cut thousands of teaching and staff positions, eliminated programs, and closed dozens of buildings. Despite very real fears that the district would not have the funds or the resources to open its doors on September 9th, the first day of classes began as scheduled (sort of) for the thousands of students the district serves.

On their first day of school, Philadelphia students were met with conditions that make academic success very difficult to achieve—conditions that are all too familiar in many inner-city schools across the country. In Philly this year, classes with more than 30 students aren’t uncommon (some buildings are reporting classes with more than 40 students)–and some high schools are only staffing one guidance counselor for thousands of students. In short, and by many accounts, the district is barely functioning.

Amid all this chaos, Teach for America’s Greater Philadelphia chapter is advertising, on its website, that “Today in Philadelphia, only 61% of kids graduate from high school within four years, and only 10% will go on to graduate from college. It’s clear that not all of Philadelphia’s students are getting the education and opportunities they deserve.”

As a solution, and taking advantage of the poor conditions that result from financial crisis (just as they did in Chicago, where they’re expanding their presence–particularly with plans to support the expansion of privately-operated charters while the district lays off thousands of public school teachers), Teach for America has initiated a regional restructuring plan that will transfer Camden and Trenton from the Greater Philadelphia chapter to Teach for America New Jersey. Doing so, says TFA, will allow Greater Philadelphia “to focus our full efforts on the opportunities and challenges ahead of us in Philly” (where, incidentally, TFA alum Marc Mannella is CEO of the KIPP charter network).

They’re coming, and no one should be surprised.

Anyone unfamiliar with TFA’s agenda need only look to its cheerleaders at Washington and Lee University, one of the “top producers of graduates participating in the Teach for America program.” According to Beverly Loring, director of Washington and Lee’s Career Development Center,

“Teach For America is an excellent first job, especially for high-achieving students who are not certain what direction they might want to take.”

The phrase “first job” makes clear that teaching is merely a stepping stone for many TFA corps members–notice Loring didn’t say TFA is for students who are committed to teaching children–and such jargon is consistent with TFA’s larger plan, which, according to W&L, encourages “individuals from all academic disciplines to spend two years teaching in high-need schools and become lifelong leaders in the movement to end educational inequity.” That’s right: TFAers who teach for two years (you know–the ones who don’t pursue careers in law, finance, and medicine) are encouraged to write education policy that affects the way career educators do their jobs.

Unfortunately, TFA is becoming an increasingly-appealing option for government officials like Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, both of whom seem set on blaming teachers for the budget shortfalls that resulted from fiscal mismanagement at City Hall. Just today (9/10/13), a report revealed that PA state auditors have been warning the School District of Philadelphia about glaring accounting problems since 1987, so it’s really no surprise that these problems have finally caught up with the city’s public school system. Yet Corbett maintains that he won’t release an additional $45 million to the financially-starved district until teachers unions agree to major concessions (namely, pay cuts of up to 13% and increased contributions to benefits packages). To those who value rectifying politicians’ poor financial judgment at the expense of children, TFA is a way to save the district money in salaries and promote the teacher turnover rates that will ultimately weaken unions—not to mention the quality of education that Philadelphia’s children receive.

The TFA plan for Philadelphia is all part of a larger—and glaringly transparent—scheme that will ultimately hurt students, starve public schools, disrupt unions, and promote the expansion of charters in Philadelphia. In 2013, 175 TFA corps members were placed in charter schools and 75 were placed in the School District of Philadelphia (statistics that show TFA’s priorities), and it’s clear that the Greater Philadelphia restructuring plan is designed to place even more TFA corps members in schools throughout the city in the coming years. The organization has even reserved part of a recently-renovated apartment complex to use as both office space for the Greater Philadelphia Teach for America headquarters and living space for TFA corps members who are placed in the city. If this isn’t calculated infiltration, I’m not sure what is.

So while there’s certainly no easy fix for the School District of Philadelphia’s immediate crisis, one thing is for sure: an increased Teach for America presence in the city will only serve to make current conditions worse for the district’s public school students and their teachers.

Correction: my original post stated that ex-executive director of TFA Greater Philly Tre Johnson, who now sits on the Board of Trustees at Philadelphia’s Independence Charter School, attended Washington and Lee University, which is incorrect; he attended the University of Maryland.



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10 responses to “TFA looks to capitalize on School District of Philadelphia crisis

  1. Philly_edu

    As a TFA alum who got laid off from the School District of Philadelphia this year, I can say that there’s not even close to 75 TFA corps members in the district. There may be 10 left, max Maybe a few more alumni who didn’t get laid off. Funny how you forgot to mention how TFA had commercials on National Television a couple weeks back.

    Nice of you not to mention how secondary math TFA and TNNTP teachers see more gains than the traditional teachers. Selective journalism.

    Is TFA the answer, hell no. Is it a big of a problem as everyone is making it, not even close. Talk to the teachers and their students, you’ll see.

    • Let me make this clear: my issue is not with idealistic college students who genuinely want to make a difference in the lives of urban children. My issue is with the organization itself, primarily because it has morphed into a vehicle that promotes damaging reforms that are bad for kids and for public education. You’re right: I didn’t mention the “gains” you speak of, primarily because standardized testing is flawed for more reasons than I can explain in this space, and secondarily because I know that teaching to a test can produce favorable scores–but, more importantly, stifles creative and analytical thinking. What’s most offensive is that implicit in TFA’s claim is the idea that TFAers are somehow “better” teachers than career educators.
      Thanks for the comment, and I’m sorry you lost your job. Good luck to you.

  2. filly4rrights

    The TFA organzation consists of vultures who are ready , willing, and able to take advantage of any public school crisis. These people are not edcuation career teachers (the kind many students & parents have come to rely on) they are drive bys, just passing through, and not dedicated to the career. When there are layoffs, teachers should always be called back first before these folks who are ready to take advantage at any moment.

  3. Jillian

    As a TFA alum myself, I do not know a single member who stayed in public education past their two year commitment.

    Any good any individual member may be doing is being wiped out by the churn they generate.

    And having seen firsthand the way some of these tests are designed, I question the common sense of anyone who places too much faith in their results.

  4. TFA, whatever idealism may have been involved in its origins, is now a corrupt organization, in it for the money, betraying all of its original commitments. If TFA was truly interested in service to the country, in filling in where there is a shortage of fully qualified and committed teachers, they would be placing you in OK where there is actually a shortage of certified teachers, NOT in Philadelphia or Chicago or Detroit or the many other cities where there are thousands of teachers who are unemployed as a result of political decisions made by politicians who are serving the economic agendas of their friends and allies (including TFA). My advice to TFA volunteers is this: do not compound the mistake of falling for the corporate rhetoric in the first place by telling yourself it is ok, even noble, to replace fully qualified teachers who are unemployed as a result of the most blatantly corrupt politics we have seen since the 1930s. Do not pretend to yourself that you are somehow, magically, qualified to teach after 5 weeks of training in crowd control. Do not believe that a scripted curriculum constitutes an education, nor that poor children are not capable of anything more. You have been fed on lies. Run, now: take your gap year building schools in Africa or South America; volunteer to help professionals in a hospital or even a school. You are too old to play school, and the stakes are too high.

  5. Tre Johnson

    Hey there. Interesting post, and one I’d love to talk with you more about since I find myself named in this (I’m Tre Johnson). Be happy to hear more about your perspective, but I’d also love to just factually share with you my actual story, facts (for example, I’ve never attended Washington and Lee U; I went to UMD-College Park) as well as share my understanding of what has happened and will happen here and where TFA does and doesn’t fit into the picture. It’s not a singular solution (and certainly not the culprit here in Philly that folks seem to think it is) and I’d be more than happy to talk about this more one-on-one. Let me know the best way to reach you as I’d rather not leave my personal information on here and start having Washington and Lee’s alumni association bug me for donations all of a sudden. Ball’s in your court–more than happy to talk.–Tre Johnson

    • Hey there! Thanks for the reply, and I apologize for sending you to a school you never attended! (So go Terps, I guess!)I’ve made the correction in the text of the post. I would welcome a discussion about TFA’s role in Philly–and, more largely, in cities across the country. My email address is

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