REVIEW: Teach For America and the Struggle for Urban School Reform, Crawford-Garrett

In her Chapter 3 for Becoming and Being a Teacher, Katherine Crawford-Garrett (University of New Mexico) “trace[d] the experiences of one cohort of first-year TFA corps members teaching in Philadelphia during the 2010-2011 school year at a time when the School District faced intense pressure to reform” (p. 27).

This chapter is a examination of several tensions related to Teach for America (TFA), teacher education, teacher agency, and urban education. Her new book from Peter Lang USA, Teach For America and the Struggle for Urban School Reform: Searching for Agency in an Era of Standardization, presents an extended critical analysis of those same experiences.

While TFA research, advocacy, and commentary offer various degrees of soaring rhetoric and harsh condemnation, Crawford-Garrett’s work reminds me of the powerful and effective look at one TFA corp member in New Orleans detailed in Sara Carr’s Hope Against Hope. Crawford-Garret, like Carr, seeks important understanding about education, education reform, and teacher education through a critical look at the complex and unpredictable experiences of novice teachers in high-poverty urban schools under incredible accountability pressure.

The seven chapters of Teach For America and the Struggle for Urban School Reform are grounded in some key contexts:

[T]he tragedy of urban education in this country has become a media spectacle, with the film Waiting for Superman garnering accolades, regardless of its limiting portrayals of teachers, optimistic endorsement of school choice and unexamined claim that outside intervention is an unequivocal good….The favored remedies…have little to do with the deep, reflective and locally driven approach that characterized the Civil Rights movement, emphasizing instead the de-professionalization of teachers, the persistent depiction of students and families as deficient and an overreliance on top-down mechanisms to improve teaching and learning. (p. 3)

For educators, administrators, policy leaders, and the public, Crawford-Garrett details an accessible, in-depth, and critical journey that maintains a focus on the tensions and complexity of education in two often contradictory contexts—high-stakes accountability and urban education.

While it would be easy simply to marginalize or reject TFA as an organization or even the often overly idealistic corp members, Crawford-Garrett instead confronts and challenges deficit perspectives about teaching, learning, and students; assumptions about urban education; and the failure of traditional education and education reform to honor and support teacher agency.

Reading this volume helps stakeholders from many arenas better understand the challenges of urban education, education reform, teacher education, and ultimately achieving the often ignored goals of democratic and emancipatory public education.

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