If you were wondering whether Teach for America — the program that places bright recent college graduates in failing schools for two years — has strayed from its original mission of preparing underprivileged students for high levels of academic achievement, the answer is probably in this tweet:

In fact, the transformation of the nonprofit started long before it began to “deconstruct the patriarchy,” and I’m hardly the first person to notice this.

The recruitment numbers at Teach for America have been in decline since before the pandemic, and one reason may be that the nonprofit has become just another vehicle for woke protest. For years, it seems that Teach for America has been more concerned with a litany of progressive political goals than with actually teaching.

In 2016, the organization sent the Trump administration a list of demands that included “safe classrooms for LGBTQ youth and teachers,” “safe classrooms for Muslim students and teachers,” “culturally responsive teaching” and protection of the DACA program. As Sohrab Ahmari wrote in Commentary a few years ago, Teach for America “increasingly functions as a platform for radical identity politics and the anti-Trump ‘resistance.’”

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I confess I was unwilling for many years to believe what people were saying about Teach for America. Or at least I thought the problem was minimal. In 2010, on the occasion of the organization’s 20th anniversary, I interviewed founder Wendy Kopp for The Wall Street Journal. And truth be told, I gushed:

What began as a senior thesis paper has since grown into a $180 million organization that this fall will send 4,500 of the best college graduates in the country to 100 of the lowest-performing urban and rural school districts. A few months ago, Teach for America (TFA) received an applicant pool that Morgan Stanley recruiters would drool over. Their 46,000 applicants included 12 percent of all Ivy League seniors, 7 percent of the graduating class of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and 6 percent from UC Berkeley. ... It is, I’m told by some recent grads, one of the coolest things you can do after college.

Of course, I had good reason to be impressed. There was the 2008 Urban Institute study which found that “On average, high school students taught by TFA corps members performed significantly better on state-required end-of-course exams, especially in math and science, than peers taught by far more experienced instructors. The TFA teachers’ effect on student achievement in core classroom subjects was nearly three times the effect of teachers with three or more years of experience.”

And there was the study from the University of North Carolina which found that middle school math students taught by TFA teachers received the equivalent of an extra half-year of learning.

2005 Teach for America corps member Jennifer Walcott during a class exercise with her students at East St. John High School in New Orleans.
2005 Teach for America corps member Jennifer Walcott during a class exercise with her students at East St. John High School in New Orleans. | Jean-Christian Bourcart, Associated Press

While most people think of TFA as a primarily urban phenomenon, I met its corps members during visits to Indian reservations. Their presence on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, one of the poorest and most violent places in the country, suggested to me that they were still committed to their mission.

Housing on the reservation is limited, so young people who volunteer are committed to living in trailers. One young man I met there had stayed on for two years after his TFA stint ended. He taught math to ninth through 12th graders in a multigrade classroom. During the summers he played in the local softball league and helped oversee an internship at nearby Badlands National Park. But the tribal leadership was dismissive of him and other TFA members, accusing them of a having “white savior mentality.”

Because these reservations are so isolated and the jobs at the local schools usually go to people who have connections to tribal leadership, the disruption that occurs when TFA comes can be even greater than what you’d find in an inner-city school. However, there are almost no other options for kids at Pine Ridge — no charter schools and only one Catholic school. The education is abysmal, and the population has the lowest life expectancy of any county in the U.S.

But disruption only gets you so far. Though the parents on the reservation seemed generally happy when their children were taught by a TFA member, one school principal fired eight teachers from TFA shortly before my visit, claiming they were not qualified. I later watched this principal give a student incorrect answers to two first-grade math problems.

It is easy to see why some TFA leaders might want to do anything in order to ensure their teachers’ continued presence in the community — even if it means emphasizing politics over education. At least the kids will have some chance of interacting with a qualified teacher. At least someone might tell them about college and the possibilities of life beyond the reservation border. At least someone might show the adults that it is not a lack of money or the right upbringing standing between their children and academic success.

But slowly, it seems as if Teach for America has given away the store. A tour of its literature includes a lot of references to diversity, equity and inclusion but not much about improving math scores. Looking back, I wonder if TFA’s capture by liberal political interests was baked into the cake. British historian Robert Conquest once postulated that “Any organization not explicitly and constitutionally right-wing will sooner or later become left-wing.” This seems to be true in education, media, philanthropy and now even in corporations.

Kopp was never a conservative though her original ideas about equality of opportunity, meritocracy and standards had a conservative bent to them. But it was also clear that she was very uncomfortable with that fact, demurring when I asked about Milton Friedman or other right-leaning advocates of education reform. When I asked her about union opposition to TFA, she told me that such feelings were attributable to “some misunderstanding about the way Teach for America works.”

Actually the educational establishment didn’t misunderstand TFA at all. They had Kopp’s number. It’s too bad she didn’t have theirs.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives.”