Book Review:

Learning from Counternarratives in Teach For America: Moving from Idealism Towards Hope

It seems like these days everyone has an opinion on public education. One major player in that debate- like it or not- is Teach for America. TFA, an organization so ubiquitous and wealthy, has the power to generate their mass media presence, influencing millions of Americans in their perspectives of public education. In Learning from Counternarratives in Teach for America, Sarah Matsui’s in depth analysis of the impact of TFA’s dominant narratives (and the subsequent presentation of counter narratives) allows the reader a much more comprehensive understanding of what TFA stands for, their operations and their role in the shift that we see in public education across the nation. To truly craft your opinion of TFA, not just what gets transferred through TFA’s mega media machine, is to understand these nuances, is to read this book. Matsui’s offering to the discourse on public education is an invaluable look into the realities faced by corps members, who effectively make up this massive institution.

In the context of public education in Philadelphia- where schools are slated to be closed, students lack full time nurses and counselors, decades of systematic disinvestment have lead to derelict buildings and almost no extracurricular activities- there is a racial component to inequity that cannot be ignored. Of the 24 schools closed in 2013, 80% of the students affected were Black students. School funding disproportionately skews towards supporting whiter districts. Philadelphia’s school system is highly policed, disenfranchised, and one of the many large cities in the United States whose school system is being swept into austerity and subsequent privatization. For these reasons, TFA’s approach to discussions around race and inequality felt like an especially vital piece of information in the puzzle of public education reform. Matsui writes:

“If CMs internalize TFA’s message that there is ’nothing elusive’ about education reform, then the solutions should all be the same; it becomes easy to hold fast to the meritocracy myth, to naively ignore historic oppression and social reproduction, to scapegoat structural educational inequity on lazy or uncaring teachers or incompetent students, to claim to be color-blind whole holding racialized assumptions about those viewed as other, to perpetuate false narratives to the society outside of teaching who are eager to receive CMs’ assessment of the problems of public education, to perpetuate systems of oppression.”

At the Philadelphia Student Union, we give young people the tools and skills they need to organize and fight for high quality public education, both in their city and on a national scale. Statements like the one above, bring me to the preliminary conversations that I have with students, especially when we talk about school closures. After decades of disinvesment, a constant lack of resources, public schools are deemed “failing”. State standards are continuously heightened, as funding slowly but steadily disappears. Students are often told the false narrative that is it their fault that their school is called “failing”, that somehow their individual effort should supersede years of failure from public officials to equitably fund schools. We cannot allow young people to internalize the failures of adults to be champions of public education.

In the high stakes of the fight for public education, I would argue that students and communities are the largest stakeholders. Matsui, in Learning from Counternarratives in Teach for America, gets exactly to this point in her understanding at the “process of description” which TFA needs to undergo in order to recognize “students and their communities as primary stake-holders and author of their own narratives.” Only when community can “name” the problems for themselves, will they be able to engage in the act of liberation, they can then “transform the world”:

“Human existence cannot be Silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, with which men and women transform the world. To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it. Once named, the world in its turn reappears to the namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming.” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire)

Matsui highlights the nuances of what it feels like to be a CM, while simultaneously holding criticism for the system writ large that allows for inequities in public education to continue. She also aggressively puts forth a compelling argument for pushing back against the narratives that TFA uses to push forth the meritocratic world perspective of “work hard, get smart” (among others). She thoughtfully includes counternarratives that shed light onto the ways in which TFA could improve, if they so chose to. TFA works in tandem with an education reform model the highlights privatization, decentralization, and constant states of experiment in low income communities of color. The question I’m left grappling with comes from a thought-provoking statement from Dionne, who Matsui interviews in the book:

“I’d love to have an organization that provides a similar opportunity but has a more critical lens on the educational landscape that we’re in.”

I’m left thinking, what does that look like? A robust teachers’ union culture? An equitable model of school funding that highlights racial inequities? Community schools?

What does education for liberation look like? And how do we make that a reality, for teachers, students and communities alike?