Teach for America and the Politics of Progressive Neoliberalism

By Lahann, Randall; Reagan, Emilie Mitescu | Teacher Education Quarterly, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview
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Teach for America and the Politics of Progressive Neoliberalism


Lahann, Randall, Reagan, Emilie Mitescu, Teacher Education Quarterly


Teach for America (TFA), a non-profit organization designed to recruit recent college graduates to commit two years to teach in understaffed urban and rural schools across the country, has been heralded by private organizations (e.g., 2008 recipient of the Social Capitalist Award) and state agencies (e.g., Duncan, 2009; U.S. Department of Education, 2004) as a poster child for alternative pathways to teaching. However, at the same time, TFA has also been criticized for its conceptions of teaching and teacher education and for its impact on student learning in urban and rural schools across the country (e.g., Cochran-Smith, 2004; Darling-Hammond, 1994; Laczko-Kerr &Berliner, 2002). Although numerous studies have examined the effectiveness of TFA teachers on student learning (e.g., Boyd, Lankford, Loeb, Rockoff, & Wyckoff, 2007; Darling-Hammond, Holtzman, Gatlin, & Heilig, 2005; Glazerman, Mayer, & Decker, 2006; Kane, Rockoff, & Staiger, 2008; Laczko-Kerr & Berliner, 2002; Stevens & Dial, 1993; Veltri, 2008), conclusions as to the program's efficacy remain contested (Zeichner & Conklin, 2005).

Rather than examine the impact of TFA, the purpose of this article is to problematize TFA's intentions by situating its political philosophy in the larger context of neoliberal educational reform. To do so, we analyze TFA's explicit use of the language of business and appropriation of corporate culture in its pursuit of more equitable public education. We find that while TFA builds on some neoliberal assumptions, it simultaneously breaks from others in order to pursue its goals. We argue that this has created a guiding set of assumptions that can be thought of as "progressive neoliberalism."

We identify our research as a critical policy analysis. While firmly grounded in the Foucauldian tradition of critique as the basis for deeper understanding of social institutions, the field of critical policy analysis encompasses a range of approaches, each of which, to some degree, influence the questions asked and the methods employed (Olssen, Codd, & O'Neil, 2004). We agree with Patti Lather's (1992) assertion that the critical perspective in education research should ultimately embrace emancipatory goals. Accordingly, our work is situated in much the same way as that of scholars such as Stephen Ball (2003, 2007) and Michael Apple (2001, 2006) who understand education policy as text and read it through the lenses of democracy, power, and justice. Building from their work, and the research of other critical education scholars, our research agenda is to challenge the dichotomy between progressivism and neoliberalism in teacher education by unpacking and problematizing the political agenda of TFA.

We come to this analysis informed not only by the research and discourse on TFA and neoliberalism, but also by our experience as previous TFA corps members in San Jose, California, from 2000-2002, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from 2003-2005, respectively. As doctoral students at Boston College, we were struck by the political divide between TFA and schools of education that espouse progressive philosophies.1 In our estimation, despite very real differences in approaches, both groups are working towards the same goal of making public education more equitable. This article does not seek to take sides, nor does it attempt to end debate. Rather, our goal is to clarify discussion and call for a more nuanced examination of the intersecting agendas.

We begin this article with a discussion of neoliberal education reform, focusing in particular on the field of teacher education. Next, we examine the criticisms of neoliberalism as a suitable political philosophy for education. We then investigate the often uneasy alliances among a diverse set of actors, all of whom have agendas that benefit from neoliberal policy to some degree; in particular, we explore a political space that exists for neoliberals who challenge some elements of conservatism and align themselves with progressive goals.

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