Several of my friends have shared and/or commented on the recent satire piece targeting Teach for America (TFA) from the Onion, which has forced me to reflect heavily on both my criticisms of TFA and those most commonly voiced by the public. In the interest of leaving well enough alone on their respective Facebook pages, I’ve decided to lay out my thoughts here.
First, let me cite my sources for those who don’t know me well: 2 semesters of English pedagogy training at the University of Arkansas; 3 semesters teaching Composition I and II at the University of Arkansas; Texas Teaching Certification in English; 2 years as Teach for America Corps Member; Faculty Advisor for Teach for America Training Institute; 42 Graduate hours in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies; Curriculum Writing for Tulsa Public Schools; various trainings in creativity and diversity for the classroom; nearly a decade as a social activist for equal rights.
I didn’t feel comfortable directly quoting folks from the various Facebook threads, so I’ll paraphrase and then respond to the most common accusations/claims/misconceptions. Before I do that, let me say that I am not a die-hard TFA fan. I criticized the organization harshly, and I did so often. They’re not a perfect organization by any means, but the public has an absolutely skewed view of the program and I hope to shed at least a little light on that.
“TFA is a band-aid. We need to address the systemic racism in public education.” – Kudos. Those frustrated with the systemic racism in our school system are lightyears ahead of many. You’re absolutely right. We do need to address the systemic racism, which is precisely what TFA teaches its corps members to do. TFA trains corps members to identify the biases and prejudices all around them, as well as those that corps members bring to the table. They further require that corps members read, discuss and act upon the latest research surrounding racism in the curriculum, racism in standardized testing, etc. Corps members (CMs) do not perpetuate the system. They work within it, since that’s the only way to truly change any system, pushing for changes at the school, district, state and national levels. Many pursue law degrees and go into education policy to have a larger impact, using their experiences in the classroom to provide perspective for the hordes of policy makers (and activists) who have no idea what it’s like to be a teacher.
“New/inexperienced teachers can never be as effective as veteran teachers.” – If that were supported by data, TFA would not continue to place CMs across the country. Districts ask for CMs because they show, on average, twice as much growth and improvement in struggling schools as their veteran counterparts. This does not mean that CMs are better teachers than veterans. CMs are trained specifically to address the inequity in public education, which means that their focus is putting students on a level playing field and changing students’ mindsets so that they continue to grow throughout their respective educations. CMs are sponges. They love ideas, and they love differing perspectives. What makes most CMs so effective is the willingness to learn from those around them, so what is really working in most schools is the combination of new and veteran teachers. CMs bring energy; veterans bring insight, wisdom and years of trial and error. Put the two together and you get results. It’s also said that many CMs are just terrible teachers. True. So are many veteran teachers. It’s not an easy profession by any means. We need to fix the system by making it easier to target ineffective teachers, give them the support they need to improve and, if they don’t improve, take them out of the classroom. Is this harsh? Yes. Do these teachers have families and bills? Yes. Does any of that matter when they are responsible for other people’s children? Not one bit.
“CMs are spoiled rich kids who can’t relate to inner-city youth.” Wow. The prejudice in this mindset is just as dangerous as the systemic racism in public education. TFA recruits at hundreds of universities. The majority of its recruits come from top schools, including the most prominent Ivy League schools. What does that tell you about CMs? Not a damn thing. CMs are individuals, just like anybody else. Are some from high-income, comfortable backgrounds? Sure. Are some first-generation, low-income students who got scholarships and capitalized? Absolutely. Are some from small universities, struggling to make ends meet and on food stamps? You betcha. It’s simply unacceptable to assume anything about CMs, just as it is unacceptable to assume anything about anybody else. Further, CMs are specifically trained to work with students from targeted backgrounds depending on their respective placements. Some are trained to work with students on reservations; some are trained to work with inner-city minority groups; some are trained to work with rural students in segregated schools (yes, really). The point is, CMs have countless hours of training to prepare them for the students they’ll be working with.
“Five weeks of training is not enough. CMs have no support when they start teaching.” – Actually, TFA has two approaches to certifying teachers. In some regions, TFA has developed a program with the state department of education and certifies CMs itself. This means that the state has approved a two-year, ongoing program of development that merits full certification, meaning that the program aligns with teacher certification programs at universities throughout the state. In other regions, TFA partners with a local university or certification program that is accredited by the state and CMs pursue certification like any other teacher. So, in addition to the much publicized 5-week summer school, CMs spend 3-4 weeks training in their regions before their first year, then come together at least once a month with mentor teachers and colleagues for professional development retreats, making them arguably the most well-supported new teachers in the country.
“Our struggling students can’t be guinea pigs for new teachers while they learn how to teach.” – This one I find very interesting. There’s public outcry about the failure of school systems to address and close the achievement gap for minority and low-income students, yet we don’t want to try something new? I’m confused. If the status quo isn’t working, try something new. If it doesn’t work, try something else. Guess what? CMs see growth. They track it at least once a month, and their mentor teachers intervene if students are not reaching their respective goals. So yes, struggling students can work with new teachers to figure out what works for them.
“TFA has terrible attrition rates.” – This one is just false. The fact is, teaching has terrible attrition rates. New teachers last, on average, three years in the classroom. CMs last, on average, three years in the classroom. When you compare the number of CMs with the number of traditionally certified new teachers who teach for two, three, four, or even ten years – the percentages are the same.
“The research says…” – Unless your research extends beyond newspaper articles tearing down TFA, your research is meaningless. You have to include research from all sides. Test scores are public record. Take a look at any district in the five years before CMs arrived and compare it with scores today. That’s solid research. Don’t trust tests? Awesome. I don’t either. For better research, read Teaching as Leadership or any number of data-centered articles about the effectiveness of CMs in the classroom. Why do you think more and more districts bring in TFA? They’ve got to have numbers to back up the pitch. Take a look at them. Compare them with research from the other side. Inform yourself. Then come talk to me.
“TFA seeks privatized education and breaks up unions.” – Patently false. CMs are urged to join their respective unions, and their mission is to repair a broken public education system. Are charter schools currently a better option for some parents? Yes. Because the problem isn’t fixed yet. Make no mistake. The goal of TFA is to put itself out of business. The way to do that is not charter schools, it’s effective public schools in every neighborhood across the country.
“College kids aren’t prepared for the task ahead of them.” – Our culture distrusts recent college graduates. I find that absurd since we, as a culture, tell every student to go to college. Once there, we continue referring to them as “kids” despite the fact that many graduate at 22 or 23. When my grandmother was 22, she had four kids, a husband and a nursing job. When my mother was 23, she had a son, a second husband and a steady job. Awesome. Is that the measure of an adult these days? Don’t we specifically tell our “kids” not to get married too young, not to have children until they’re settled, and that they need (at minimum) a college degree + 1 year experience for a good job? We have to reevaluate the way we look at younger generations. What is the measure of adulthood now? How do our “kids” get experience AND a college degree? Last I checked, no one would hire you without experience, so where do you go? I think we, as a culture, need to seriously consider why we preference experience over education, but encourage education over experience.
So what is the biggest problem with TFA? My personal opinion is that TFA, as an organization, has a problem with privacy. I’ve constantly criticized TFA for not being transparent in the community. Transparency would answer so many questions for a public that is, unfortunately, distrusting of anything new. I think that the public understanding of TFA would benefit immensely from public forums, public records of CM training in each region, etc.
I welcome dialogue here, but please keep it respectful. We learn from conflict. We learn from different perspectives. We do not learn from aggressive or intolerant language.