Amanda Ripley

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Scenes from the TFA Revival

15th Feb 2011 posted in Education

There is a lot of confusion about what Teach for America is and is not. Is it a tiny nonprofit that will never have enough teachers to make a difference? Is it an elite conspiracy to take down the unions? Walking into Teach for America’s 20th anniversary summit in DC this weekend, the answer was obvious. This is basically a cult. Nothing less.

There were nearly 11,000 people in one huge hall, with five big TV screens hanging from the ceiling and pulsating lights strobing the audience. The crowd—mostly teachers or former teachers and a smattering of celebrities, from Malcolm Gladwell to Gloria Steinem to John Legend—made up a giant chorus of believers. The Ballou High School Marching Band carved its way through the hall, and a line-up of the country’s most battle-scarred reformers, from Geoffrey Canada to Joel Klein, called for nothing short of a revolution. It felt like a religious revival.

In the break-out sessions and in the one-on-one conversations in the hallways afterward, the anxiety crept in. The two most pressing questions I heard again and again were about the future: Are we finally turning the corner to fix America’s schools—or is this yet another education reform bubble? And secondly, Do reformers need to be nicer? Or more ruthless than ever? (In other words, is collaboration with the teachers’ unions a synonym for the status quo—or the only way to achieve real change?)

But the event answered one question with certainty: Teach for America is not really about its 8,000 active corps members or its 20,000 alumni; it’s about the Kool-Aid, the elixir that has found its way, after 20 years, into the bloodstream of the educational establishment. At latest count: 357 principals, 30 superintendents, 6 charter-school founders and dozens of elected officials, all of them convinced that every kid can learn, no excuses. Period.