Accelerating Progress in Education: Calling for a Coalition That Rejects False Choices

Teaching in a low-income community in Phoenix as a 1998 Teach For America corps member, I understood right away that the classroom is a reflection of systemic inequities in our country. Our public schools are not designed to do what we need them to do for all kids. And it’s as obvious now as it was then that educational inequity is impervious to quick fixes.

Today, I spend most of my time in schools and in communities, engaging with educators, students and their families, civic leaders, and law makers from every background and across the political spectrum. I see examples all over the country that remind me what is possible for our students when we embrace innovation, engage families, and scale what works.

Most days, I think we’re poised to accelerate this progress and see a meaningfully different reality for all children in my lifetime: they will have social mobility, economic security, and the skills, knowledge, and influence to lead their communities and our country. But some days, I question whether the individuals and institutions who share this vision are truly capable of working across lines of difference to create enduring change.

The history of successful change efforts shows us that a broad, diverse coalition is essential if we’re going to blaze a path to educational equity and excellence in America. No quick fixes, but the courageous commitment to exchange ideas and to respectfully disagree in dogged pursuit of solutions.

But this is not what’s happening.

Instead, we’re allowing the education conversation to be defined without enough nuance, appreciation for, or proximity to the realities students face every day. We’re relying on false dichotomies to frame our work, and this set of either-or choices fails our children.

False dichotomies can be found in the tired idea that we have to choose whether to end poverty or improve education first. That we have to choose between a classroom that is academically rigorous and excellent and a classroom that affirms a child’s culture and community. That we have to choose between public charter schools and traditional district schools. That preparing the country’s future workforce to succeed in our global economy requires a choice between academic results and broader student outcomes.

While our children are watching and waiting, these false choices tear at the fabric of our society and drive a wedge among the many of us who have dedicated our lives to expanding educational opportunity.

The history of successful change efforts shows us that a broad, diverse coalition is essential.

Since Teach For America’s first corps entered classrooms in 1990, people have tried to apply these false choices to our organization and define us on ideological grounds. Our model challenges the status quo, and therefore has always been controversial.

To some, TFA is a right-wing corporate conspiracy to privatize education. To others, TFA is a left-leaning platform for “identity politics.”

So what is Teach For America?

At our core, Teach For America is what we’ve been for almost three decades. Our mission is shaped by the belief that profound systemic change in America is the only path to educational equity and excellence. We are a network of leaders who confront educational inequity through teaching and work with unwavering commitment from every sector of society to create a country free from this injustice.

Try as one might to lock TFA in an ideological box, our mission transcends partisan ideology. That’s why our corps members, our team, and our board come from all over the ideological and political spectrum. It’s why we select, train, and develop leaders who are coalition-builders.

Alumni join together at Teach For America’s 25th Anniversary Summit.

Today, 50,000 TFA alumni are teaching in thousands of classrooms, leading more than 1,500 schools and school systems, and applying lessons they learned as teachers to expand opportunity as entrepreneurs, legislators, community organizers, professors, lawyers, civic leaders, and more.

We are the largest source of educators in low-income communities, working in partnership with brilliant and curious young people and their families across urban and rural America. We are the country’s single largest source of teachers of color, contributing to a more diverse educator workforce. Again and again, the most rigorous studies show the positive impact of TFA in classrooms and schools.

So we remain steadfast in our mission. And we take seriously our responsibility to listen, to study the data, and to evolve as we learn more about what works in classrooms, schools, and communities.

One lesson that is undeniable: Students who are loved learn better. We are unyielding in our commitment to holding high academic standards and affirming and embracing students’ culture and community. These two ideals can coexist — in fact, one requires the other. The first pillar of culturally responsive teaching is academic rigor on an absolute scale.

We remain a nonpartisan organization that works in a bipartisan way, because equity and excellence are not partisan issues — they are our deeply held American values.

We are scrupulous about the policy positions we take. We support policies that enable our mission, and that we have learned expand access and opportunity for students. And we do so without regard for which political party or constituency may champion or oppose them.

Try as one might to lock Teach For America in an ideological box, our mission transcends partisan ideology.

We fight to give all students and families access to excellent, accountable educators and schools; to protect the civil rights and safety of our students, corps members, and alumni; and to create conditions for a workforce of educators as diverse as our country. Some may assign these policies a political identity or create false choices between them; we see them as interdependent and essential to ensuring that all children realize their full potential.

TFA alumni have many different points of view about the way forward. As an organization, we embrace this truth. More importantly, we believe this diversity of thought is required to meet the scale and complexity of the problem. We draw strength from each other — from our differences, from our shared experience in the classroom, and from our common vision that every child will have the opportunity to attain an excellent and equitable education.

False dichotomies are good at one thing: preserving a status quo. They’re a terrible framework for solving complex problems. They make ideology the stubborn foundation for dialogue. They keep a coalition from becoming more than the sum of its parts. They repel new ideas.

As a country, we must stop letting false dichotomies define the terms of our work to create an education system worthy of our children. We must do a better job of building the relationships that enable us to ask hard questions of one another without shutting down dialogue. We must recognize that striving for equal opportunity and justice for all is not the exclusive pursuit of the right or the left, but our shared pursuit as Americans. That is how we will accelerate our progress in education to make enduring change happen.

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