Here we go again.
“Mel, when are you going to join Teach for America (TFA). Since you’re an urban education major, I just assumed you’d be the first to join!”
Please excuse me for a moment while I bang my head against a wall repeatedly.
We’ve been through this before: I have a lot of issues with Teach for America, which include some of the following: TFA brings in some of the most inexperienced teachers and puts them into urban districts, where many times the most experienced and committed teachers are needed. TFA grads are even pushing out veteran teachers (does this surprise you?); with such a high turnover rate, they can keep them at the bottom of the pay scale, and continually keep costs down while teachers come in and out of schools like they are on a conveyor belt. Branching off of this, and to make matters worse, students in urban districts with TFA grads as their ‘teachers’ experience much more instability due to the turnover, again when those students are in need of the most stability. Teach for America, in my opinion, is no more than a resume-padding two-year stint (if the corps members even stay the full two-years they commit to) that, in my opinion, preserves, rather than eliminates, 'educational inequity' and the so-called 'achievement gap.'
I have not (and in case you didn’t figure it out by now), will NEVER join TFA or be associated with the organization in any way. Just google “Why I Quit Teach for America” and you’re sure to come across a slew of articles and personal anecdotes as to why people left after getting involved and read about their many issues. To sum this up, I will leave it to Gary Rubinstein, one of the most outspoken critics of TFA:
“The organization of TFA is a bit like a pyramid scheme. There are a bunch of VPs who are making a lot of money for a non-profit, certainly six figures. Then there are the majority of staffers, people who work in recruitment, teacher ‘effectiveness’, even the alumni team, IT, etc., who make much less. But regardless of the status of the TFA staffer, they all have one thing in common: They are all accessories to a $300 million annual fraud funded, in part, by taxpayers, and which has, I’m sorry to say, contributed to the weakening of the pub[l]ic school system which has, in turn, hurt innocent kids and, yes, their hard working teachers.
“TFA is an organization that now thrives on greed, deception, and fear. The deception, though, is the thing that is more relevant to you. I’ll let you know about the others some other time. Part of the deception is that they promote a very oversimplified view of their success. They would have you believe that a good percent of the new CMs [corps members] are way better than the ‘average’ teacher, mainly because of the high expectations of the CM. They may even say this is aided by the new high expectations of the fancy new common core standards. Unfortunately, this oversimplified version of reality will lead you to struggle very much your first year, and to fail to be the teacher your students deserve.”
While I don't want to automatically attack anyone involved with TFA, as I do not know them personally and are unsure of their motives and beliefs, it is hard for me not to fault people who do join TFA. When committing to an organization as such, I have to question whether or not the corps members actually did any research on the organization beyond what they heard in recruitment sessions or in mass media where the anti-teacher, anti-public education tale is one told too often. If someone really did their research on the organization, wouldn't they be bothered by the fact that someone with only five WEEKS of training is entering a school which is likely in one of the neediest places in the country? Why is it that I am spending five YEARS getting my masters degree in urban education studies, yet TFA grads can spend a summer training and prance right into a classroom full of 30 kids that each carry a backpack full of their own issues.
Some may respond to this by saying, "well, if you have the gift of teaching, it doesn't matter how much education you have. Teaching is an art." I wouldn't disagree entirely with this argument. I absolutely believe teaching is an art and that some people simply have a "gift" for teaching. But having that "gift" does not mean that you are ready whatsoever to step foot into a classroom. Over the five years I'm spending in a specially designed Urban Elementary Education program at The College of New Jersey, I will take multiple classes on content that applies specifically to urban experiences, multiple semesters of in-classroom placement in urban settings in addition to theory classes connected to these in-placement classes, classes on childhood development, and within all of this learn about lesson plans, curriculum writing, produce my ow independent research, and better myself in all aspects of education as a whole, while specifically tailoring my knowledge and understanding to teaching in an urban district.
The "gift" may get you started, but it's not enough. Not even a fraction of what I'm doing could be achieved within five weeks.
A report from The Wire in July of 2013 chronicled the organizing resistance to Teach for America from people within the organization:
"'As a non-TFA person, I can point out some of the weaknesses in the program, but it's far more powerful when people who are in the program can speak to that,' said Anthony Cody, an outspoken California-based educator who spent 18 years as an Oakland science teacher, during which time, he estimates, he worked with about 30 TFA members in a mentoring program. 'It's really heartening to see teachers who come from TFA that are thinking for themselves and drawing on their experiences in the classroom to realize that there are some real significant problems with the TFA approach...'
"But indeed, many of Teach for America's most vicious opponents point out that the high turnover of trainees being dispatched to some of the country's most challenging school districts—often without any long-term plans to be teachers—is precisely the problem. Anthony Cody's experiences in Oakland corroborated this critique. In a typical cycle, the school would lose about half of its corps members after their second year. By the third year, half of those who had remained after the second year would be gone. The problem, Cody explained, is that many who join Teach for America don't actually want to be teachers in the first place, instead using the program as a prestigious stepping stone for policy work, law school, or business school. One study found that roughly 57 percent of corps members planned to teach for two years or less when they applied, while only 11 percent intended to make teaching a lifelong career. (TFA has claimed, however, that 36 percent remain in the classroom as teachers. But their recently announced partnership with Goldman Sachs, which provides TFA recruits with jobs at the banking firm after two years of service, doesn't entirely help their cause.)"
As someone who is a non-TFA member, it may be hard to believe what I'm saying. But there is endless anecdotal evidence on the internet about TFA members who felt woefully unprepared.
Sandra Korn, a senior at Harvard College (as of 2013) and a New Jersey public school graduate, raised her own concerns over the 'training' that corps members receive:
“For one, I am far from ready to enter a classroom on my own. Indeed, in my experience Harvard students have increasingly acknowledged that TFA drastically under-prepares its recruits for the reality of teaching. But more importantly, TFA is not only sending young, idealistic, and inexperienced college grads into schools in neighborhoods different from where they're from -- it's also working to destroy the American public education system. As a hopeful future teacher, that is not something I could ever conscionably put my name behind...
“But it has become increasingly clear to anyone who thinks critically about teaching that there's something off with TFA's model. After all, TFA alumni repeatedly describe their stints in the American public education system as some of the hardest two years of their lives. Doesn't it bother you to imagine undertrained 22-year-olds standing in front of an crowded classroom and struggling through every class period? Indeed, most of the critiques of TFAin The Crimson have focused on students' unpreparedness to teach.
“However, unpreparedness pales in comparison to the much larger problem with TFA: It undermines the American public education system from the very foundation by urging the replacement of experienced career teachers with a neoliberal model of interchangeable educators and standardized testing. If TFA intended to place students in schools with insufficient numbers of teachers, it has strayed far from its original goal. As an essay by Chicago teacher Kenzo Shibata asked last summer, ‘Teach For America wanted to help stem a teacher shortage. Why then are thousands of experienced educators being replaced by hundreds of new college graduates?’ Journalist James Cersonsky notes that veteran teachers and schools alike may suffer from this type of reform: ‘Districts pay thousands in fees to TFA for each corps member in addition to their salaries -- at the expense of the existing teacher workforce. Chicago, for example, is closing 48 schools and laying off 850 teachers and staff while welcoming 350 corps members.’”
This morning, as I was pondering my thoughts on this topic, I read a wonderful article by Nancy Bailey, teacher, author, and blogger. In response to President Obama sitting down with four teachers to discuss education, she writes the following as real solutions to the issues that plague poor students and urban schools:
"Furthermore, despite Duncan’s letter, it appears that their myopic outlook focuses primarily on teaching and data again and not on a host of other serious issues confronting children in poor schools today. Here are examples:
5. Here is a new question for the administration to hash over. They always discuss disadvantaged children like they all have low abilities. Well what about disadvantaged children that are gifted and talented? How will they be served by Common Core State Standards? Who’s even bothering to identify these kids?
6. Along with no. 5, we know that all children, including disadvantaged children, flourish in the arts. The arts include music, art, drama, and dance and they should be included in every public school. Sadly, many poor children miss out on the arts, because they are prepping for high-stakes tests. And blending the arts into the academics isn’t necessarily bad, but currently this is being used as a substitute for real art programs. Children deserve the arts and real credentialed art teachers!
7. Speaking of high-stakes testing–parents, and the students, across the country are sick of them. They are detrimental to the well-being of all children, especially the disadvantaged.
8. If you want to do something for poor children, lower their class sizes, especially in K-3rd grade, and quit the flunking. There is a huge amount of research on both these issues.
9. Where are the wrap-around services for children in the early years, and quality preschool programs that are based on sound child developmental research?
10. A safe and healthy environment was mentioned. Many schools in this country, especially in urban and rural areas, do not fit that description. A comprehensive facility assessment of schools, considering up-to-date building codes is warranted. There are many schools across the nation that are old and need repairs and renovations. Special consideration should be taken when it comes to schools that could be dangerous in tornadoes and earthquakes.
11. Disadvantaged children need counselors, social workers and school nurses to help them rise above their conditions, which sometimes can include homelessness, and they need access to good health care and assistance getting it. Every child in this country should have access to medical and dental care!"
This really puts things in perspective. I am passionate about urban education, and because of that I know that we as a nation must address the read hard issues that impact urban districts - poverty, racism, violence, other stressors that impact families, income inequality, hunger, etc. There are no fast solutions to problems such as these that are so deeply engrained in our society, and that includes Teach for America. It is going to take a strong commitment from all parties involved in education to evaluate these issues and work towards making change, which begins with addressing the fundamental issues that plague urban students and schools.
Every student, no matter their socioeconomic status or zip code, deserves to be in a safe school with proper infrastructure and with a teacher who goes into the profession committed to staying a lifetime with a passion for education. For these reasons and many more, I cannot support Teach for America.