Teach for America Shows it’s Learned a Lesson About Diversity: Now, What’s Next?

Teach for America is browner than ever before. This week, the organization announced that 50 percent of its incoming corps of 5,300 identify as people of color. This compares to the less than 20 percent of all teachers nationwide. Whether friend or foe, all should be encouraged by the news that a mainstream organization is responding to the needs of our communities and country. The question I have is, how good does TFA look now that it’s beige?

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Not only is TFA browner; it’s beginning to reflect the populations the organization serves. Here are the other demographic markers stated in the announcement:

  • 47 percent received Pell Grants, a reliable indicator of low-income background
  • One-third are the first in their families to attend college
  • 22 percent identify as African American
  • 13 percent identify as Hispanic
  • 6 percent identify as Asian American or Pacific Islander
  • 1 percent identify as Native
  • 33 percent come to the corps from graduate

The complexion of previous classes certainly dogged the organization. I’ve said, “education reform is too white to do any good.” Communities of color won’t allow education reform to be imposed like school uniform rules. And communities are not fooled by tokens in brown or blackface. Education organizations must serve first by representing communities from the inside out. Meaning, be a diverse, democratic organization before you seek to make a community one.

Not only is TFA stronger by becoming more diverse, the teacher organization has the foundation to become more equitable and inclusive. Numerical diversity isn’t an end goal; it’s a requisite objective towards a democratic organization that has real potential to actually teach America the basic idea of we are all in this together.

In addition, having a diverse pool of teachers makes the organization more attractive to districts teaching communities of color. It also puts pressure on higher education providers to be self-effacing. Too many colleges of education faculty charge TFA as being a paternalistic, neoliberal organization that is a tool of corporate interests driven to destroy public education, yet when you look at the teachers that colleges of education are graduating, they look no different from the TFA of the past.

“Numerical diversity isn’t an end goal; it’s a requisite objective towards a democratic organization that has real potential to actually teach America the basic idea of we are all in this together.”

The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation reports that if current trends hold, the percentage of teachers of color will fall to an all-time low of 5 percent of the total teacher workforce by 2020. At the same time the percentage of students of color will likely exceed 50 percent in the fall of 2014. Colleges of education must step up and diversify its faculty and graduates. We’ll see if the top colleges of education follow suit. Moreover, college of education faculty can’t be so cynical that we can’t applaud improvements in diversity.

Still, I have some concerns, as should TFA. Racism fueled de jure and de facto segregation, particularly in schooling. The ensuing implicit bias and explicit discrimination taint many backers of the current reform movement. For instance, much of the charter movement has been about educating poor children based on pity. Subsequently, many charter schools in urban schools aren’t built to educate anyone but poor, children of color. An excellent school should seek all families regardless of background.

The touchstone of a successful charter school has been to have 90 percent of the student population to be on free and reduced lunch, 90 percent of students of color but 90 percent of those students meeting the state standard. Hold up; wait; it’s a still segregated school. Is a 90/90/90 school something to strive for?

While I don’t believe charter schools acted to segregate schools, they’re largely not helping to integrate them. Still wealthy foundations and individuals (who would never attend a public school) bankrolled much of the charter movement.

Now that TFA is browner, will the money and prestige still pour to TFA? Will the organization and students still be considered smart? I hope so.

I’ve met many of the black and brown teachers and leaders of TFA. Whoa! They’re incredibly smart, committed to social justice and driven toward the larger goals of TFA. Which begs the question, what does it mean for what W.E.B DuBois, dubbed the talented tenth, to reside in a historically white organization. While historically black colleges and universities still can make that claim to produce the talented tenth at the undergraduate level, the best and brightest post-baccalaureate black talents have the organization on their resumes. While many may be concerned with this phenomenon, this is why I’m excited about the news of TFA’s diversity.

While exceptions certainly exist, the sons and daughters of Dubois, Washington, Hammer, Chavez and Kochiyama, certainly understand how to place education in a social justice framework even within white organizations. Moreover, it’s the openness of TFA to learn from black, Latino and Asian American leadership that is promising.

The former irony of TFA was that the white organization had so much to learn from the people of color it supposedly was serving. Now, it’s clear that TFA has learned, and who knows where the organization will go.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).