We don’t need your missionaries

A version of this article first appeared on North by Northwestern.

At Northwestern, we love to talk about leadership. We are a “leading institution,” educating “student leaders” to be the “leaders of tomorrow.” If you haven’t heard at least one of these phrases in the time you’ve been here, you really need to take your headphones off more often. Leadership defines us as an institution, it’s how we understand our position in society, and the roles we will come to play when we graduate. At least in part, it is also how we justify our relatively privileged position in the American social hierarchy: We aren’t here just to get rich, but also to become great leaders who will make the world a better place for everyone.

At Teach For America, a program which sends young college grads to teach for two years at the most impoverished schools in the country, the talk of leadership has been raised up to an art form. In their mission statement, they describe themselves as “growing the movement of leaders who work to ensure that kids growing up in poverty get an excellent education.” They “recruit leaders.” They “invest in leaders.” They’re in the leadership business. Wendy Kopp, the founder and board chair of TFA, frequently speaks of leadership – it might be her favorite word in the English language right after “transformational.” She sees TFA and its alumni as “a lot of the leadership driving the change” in the way we do education in this country.

But what if the problems we face can’t be solved by better leaders? What happens when these problems are structural, and have their roots at the deepest foundations of our society? It then appears that our constant talk of leadership is merely a way to avoid talking about the real challenges. More than that, it’s a way to see ourselves as part of the solution, and thus without moral blame, while the biggest moral questions of our day go unanswered.

Nowhere is the bankruptcy of this obsession with leadership more obvious than in the field of education. Studies on the subject have shown that social class and family background are the biggest predictors of educational outcomes. No amount of leaders recruited by TFA from ‘elite’ schools can change the fact that students grow up in the context of a society with colossal gaps between rich and poor, white and black. This isn’t avoiding the issue, as Kopp frequently claims it is – it’s facing the facts. Teacher quality is the next most important factor. But the biggest variable for ensuring teacher quality is teaching experience, which a two-year program can’t provide. While some TFA alumni stay in the profession after their two-year stint, more than 80 percent leave after three years – much more than the 50 percent of overall teachers who leave the profession after five years.

And who blames them? The pay is poor, the hours are long and working conditions are far from ideal. The teaching profession has lost any prestige it may have once had, with teachers more often used as scapegoats for achievement gaps than objects of admiration. Teaching is no longer about instilling a sense of wonder in young people, but about teaching them mindless skills to pass tests. As one teacher recently said in his resignation letter, the profession “no longer exists.”

You might think that this does nothing to discredit TFA and its “leaders.” After all, they don’t (usually) pretend to be the be-all and end-all of solutions to the educational gap. But it is not clear that they provide even a short-term solution, with no significant improvement in the short term in any area when compared with teachers in similar positions. Even more importantly, TFA and its supporters push directly against the structural changes we need. They give us two years when we need life-long educators. They give us college grads willing to work for a little cash before they move on to more lucrative careers, when we need to make the teaching profession attractive enough for people to dedicate their lives to it. They give us idealistic young kids when we need experienced, well-trained teachers. By making it look like what we need is a small group of genius “leaders” in the raw, TFA contributes to making teaching the opposite of what it needs to be – a pillar of our society, worthy of the same respect as the most prestigious profession.